Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Book Stack ~ December 2021

  A monthly post about my progress toward finishing a very large stack of books. Past months' posts:

As 2021 drew to a close and I realized I was never, ever going to finish reading all of the books in my stack if I just read books based on what I was in the mood for, I decided to take a different approach, and prioritize reading books that were given or loaned to me. My reasoning was that even if they weren't books I might have chosen for myself, they came from people who care about me and who had good reasons for thinking I might like the same books they like. So I resorted my stack into two piles: "purchased" and "given/loaned to me." (If you see a book come up in a post that you loaned me and that you want back, let me know! I might've forgotten.) From here I'm going to plow forward and read those books in the second pile, with occasional forays into the other pile (and a really strong effort to not buy any new books until both piles are depleted). So without further ado, here's what I read in December:

Shrill by Lindy West. This one my brother and sister-in-law gave me for my birthday. I wasn't familiar with West before reading this--she's a humor writer who takes on internet trolls (specifically misogynistic and fat-phobic trolls) in her work. She managed to take on a lot of difficult subjects in this volume--fat shaming, abortion, rape "jokes" in the comedy world--and make an entertaining read at the same time. I'm now watching the series by the same name. I see West also has a new book out, which I'm not allowed to buy (see above) until I've made a reasonable dent in the stack.

Fiction These books were both given (loaned?) to me be the same friend. Which is interesting because they're extremely different.

The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks. After a school bus accident, a town splits in half over who to blame and how to extract payment. It's written from many different viewpoints (I think around five or six) with one really long chapter per POV character. It's an interesting look into human psychology and kind of a relevant take on today's divided world, only from a nonpolitical standpoint. I can't say I enjoyed it, because it's about dead children, but I was carried along by the story and definitely moved by the characters.

Infinity in the Palm of Her Hand by Gioconda Belli. This is a reimagining of the Adam and Eve story, which is definitely not something I'd normally pick up. I found it a little silly, especially the way Adam and Eve discovered/invented about 10,000 years' worth of human developments in their first year out of Eden (sort of like the way Ayla makes all of the human discoveries/inventions in Clan of the Cave Bear, only Eve's not as charming as Ayla and Adam's not as smoking is Jondalar). But, if you like fantasy and reimagined mythology, this might be right up your alley.

Goldenrod by Maggie Smith. I did buy this book, before I (re)committed to not buying new books. I admit to being sold by the cover (goldenrod flowers on a blue background). But the poems inside are lovely and moving. I read a little of this each morning in November during my trip to Colorado and finished it up in December after I got home. The poems were a grounding and meditative way to start each day, and each one gave me pause for thought. I'd like to read it again to really drink it all in.

I read a total of 59 books in 2021 (including 4 audiobooks), which should have been enough to make a serious dent in the book stack, but only about 20 came from the stack. Still, that was more of a dent than I thought I'd made. Now if I can double that number, I might be able to see my floor beneath all those books!

Friday, January 14, 2022

Flash Friday ~ January Twilight

It is what I call the blue time of year--even on a gray day the clouds are tinged with blue, as are the snow and the trees. Yesterday the wind blew so hard the tree trunks made animal sounds where they rubbed together. Today is so calm I can hear the traffic on the next road over, a dog barking across the river, the shifting of a board back by the garage. My ice spikes crack and crunch on the glazed driveway, each step a pistol shot. A faint breeze sends the leaves of a young beech shivering, a dry, papery, gothic sound. Otherwise the world is still. The birds and squirrels away to their roosts and nests, the predators awaiting dusk. 

The air is cold. Not the bitter, biting cold of earlier in the week, but a damp insipid cold that makes inroads at cuffs and seams, anywhere layers of fabric overlap. Even on a short walk my mind flickers to other places--conversations from earlier in the day, vegetables that need chopping, the evening's plans. I try to yank it back to the blue world. The here and now. 

Back at the house, I see the Christmas tree propped against the doorframe and remember that today is January 13, St. Knut's Day, the day Scandinavians take down their trees. I believe they burn theirs in Sweden, but I can't stand the thought and instead we return ours to the woods it came from, where it can be a refuge to small birds and animals. 

I lift the tree by its slender trunk and set off through the woods, off piste. In the chiaroscuro of a winter's evening--white snow, black twigs and branches--it's easy to find a pathway among the trees to the field below, where the dried stems of tall white aster stand chest high. I find a trail across the field, the one the boys use to get to their skating rink on the river, the snow trampled and refrozen in icy footprints, and I follow its winding route through the trees. I feel rushed by the lateness of the hour. It will be dark soon, I have places I need to go this evening, things I need to get ready. So I don't take the tree all the way to the river bank, but set it in the snow beside the trail, thank it again for bringing warmth and light and green into our house in the darkest part of the winter, and turn toward home.

My hands are sticky with balsam sap, and I bring them to my face, breathe deeply the scent of solstice and Christmas, family and winter, life and light.

This is a new series, where I plan to write a flash piece (nonfiction for now, but maybe fiction later) every Friday of 2022.

Friday, January 7, 2022

Rare Birds

I don't often chase after rare birds. If I happen to be in the neighborhood where one's recently been sighted, or if a friend invites me on an expedition to seek one out, I'll happily go. I've seen a red-billed tropic bird this way, as well as a redwing, a dickcissel, and Icelandic gull. I've had less luck with the snow goose, roseate spoonbill, and black throated grosbeak. The rare birds are a thrill, but I'm equally content to wander the woods behind my house in search of the annual cycle of migrants or watch everyday chickadees and nuthatches on my feeders.

Yet when I heard heard about the Stellar's sea eagle making an appearance in Maine, I knew I needed to at least try to see it. My first indication that this giant raptor was in town was in a New Year's Eve social media post from a friend of mine, which showed his field sketches of the bird's massive yellow bill and fierce gaze. Despite its ice-age splendor, the sea eagle looks a bit like the giant bird that falls in love with the professor in my favorite childhood book, Professor Wormbog in Search of the Zipper-Uppa-Zoo, by Mercer Mayer. I wanted to be there the coast, trying out my Christmas gift spotting scope, sketching this prehistoric bird. The place it had been sighted was only an hour from my home--practically in the neighborhood. Besides, when would I ever have the chance to see this far-from-home visitor again? I made plans to drive down the next day.

The Stellar's is the largest of the sea eagles (members of the genus Haliaeetus, which includes bald eagles). Standing around three feet tall and weighing up to twenty pounds, it's the size of a toddler, a toddler with an eight-foot wingspan. This massive bird doesn't normally hang around in Maine. Its usual stomping grounds are along the coast of Siberia, particularly the Kamchatka Peninsula, with winter forays south to Japan. This particular bird is believed to be the same one that appeared in Alaska in August and has been hanging around Canada's Maritime provinces this fall, with a foray into Massachusetts last month and one unsubstantiated sighting in Texas. In other words, it's far from home and doesn't seem to know how to get back, although it could be forgiven for mistaking Maine for Siberia.

As I made my way down the peninsula--not Kamchatka, but Georgetown--on a foggy New Year's Day, I began to question my decision. There were cars--a lot of cars. Far more cars than should be driving toward Reid State Park in the wintertime. I saw Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, and Massachusetts license plates. My butterfly teacher, Bryan, has written about birders and our carbon emissions in pursuit of the next grand thing. Now I was one of them, a member of a smog-emitting flock. 

But I'd come this far. There was not turning back. As I neared eagle ground zero, I noticed cars heading back the other way. I pulled over and asked a passerby, "Any luck?" He told me the bird hadn't been seen in a while and everyone was heading over to the state park. Good, a chance to pee. I joined the flow of cars heading back inland and into the park, where I availed myself of the facilities. But now what to do? The park has miles of coastline. Birders appeared to be milling around, heading in multiple directions, no apparent direction of migration. I overheard someone saying it was back at Five Islands and watched the crowds return to their cars and head back down peninsula. It reminded me of something, this ebb and flow of birdwatchers. Murmuration of starlings, perhaps, or, more likely, characters in an old slapstick movie directed by Mel Brooks.

Yet here I was, a member of the ridiculous cast, and I joined the stream of cars, found a place to park beside the road, walked down to the dock and found myself a rock on the shore to sit on. All of the other birders stood on the hillside above and behind me, and I wondered if I was missing something by being lower and closer to the water. The crowd was quiet, birders being a sedate lot, and I pulled out my journal and sketched the islands in front of me, stopping every few minutes to scan the trees with my binocs. The fog had lifted some, and I saw a bald eagle perched on at tree at the edge of one island. I realized that even if the bird did make an appearance out there, it would look like little more than a smudgy dot. I'd left my scope in the car up the hill. Would such a sighting even "count"?

An unpainted lobster boat tootled out toward the farthest island, a handful of birders on board. Sound carries over water, especially on a foggy day, and I could hear the pilot tell the people on board that no other fishermen were transporting birders because of the liability, but he just wanted people to see the bird. I supposed I could have hung around the dock, hoping to catch a ride on a later foray, but I didn't have any cash with me--I imagined he was charging--and while I don't have a great fear of water, I do have a strong respect for the North Atlantic Ocean in wintertime. And while it was nearly flat calm, I still didn't relish the idea of heading out into the fog in a lobster boat with no transom, and likely no lifejackets, in January.

I hung out on my rock for about an hour, until I got cold and a little bored, and headed home. Later in the week my great birding friend Cheryl invited me to go on a hunt for the eagle. It hadn't been seen in a couple of days, and she and another friend of ours had hatched a scheme to search a nearby island (car accessible), in hopes of finding the bird. We spent the day on the island, and I got to try out my new scope. We saw some sea birds and tree birds, and even a red-shouldered hawk. We hiked all through the enchanted forest of a preserve I'd never known was there, we chatted and laughed together, and we discovered a new bakery on the way home. But we never found the Stellar's sea eagle. And I'm okay with that.

Because the thing with rare bird sightings is that, as exciting as it is to see and learn a new bird, it's unspeakably sad to see a creature so out of place. The dickcissel looked cold, puffed out like a dandelion in a multiflora rose bramble in Portland, rather than a jungle in Central America, where it peered out from its yellow-rimmed eye and tried to fit in among a noisy flock of house sparrows. The redwing, a visitor from Iceland or Eurasia, looked less cold, but still confused. An oversized, disheveled robin, it arched its skeptical white eyebrow and stretched its wing, playing to the crowd of migrant birdwatchers who'd flocked from as far away as Tennessee. And the tropicbird could break your heart, beelining each summer from parts unknown to a cold, barren North Atlantic rock, only lobster buoys for companionship. 

Wherever that sea eagle is today, I hope it finds its way back home, nearly halfway around the world.

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Turn Toward the Light

We usually celebrate the Winter Solstice with stringing popcorn and cranberry garlands and birdseed ornaments on the spruce tree out front followed a walk into the woods and a small fire on the bank of the Eastern River. Sometimes we take Christmas cookies and a thermos of hot chocolate to enjoy by the fire, and once we had a picnic of cheese pasties. This year, though, the turn from darkening days back toward the light passed with barely a notice in our house. The boys were off on a last-minute shopping adventure and I was on a conference call. Such is the pull of capitalism and obligation that the rhythms of the earth get shunted aside. This is nothing new--back in those hot cocoa and cheese pasty days, we often practiced "Solstice, Observed," as if it were a federal holiday landing inconveniently on the calendar whenever work or a school concert or an ice storm interfered with the actual moment the earth turned back toward the sun.

The arrival of the shortest day of the year, however slight was my notice of it, did clarify for me why I've been so tired lately (other than, you know, the apocalypse); it's the time of year for burrowing, for hibernating, for settling into the subnivian zone with a cache of seeds and avoiding owls. It's not the time to scramble to finish my "21 in '21" list or to endlessly shop to fulfill an open-ended Christmas list. A cashier asked me yesterday if I was "almost done" and I answered truthfully, "I'm never done, I just keep shopping until Christmas." Much of that comes from having teenagers who can't think of a thing they want until a week before Christmas, but the rest I can attribute to an anxiety around not being enough, not "doing it right." Oh, yes, and a slight problem I have with buying myself a present for every two I buy for other people.

When I'm not out single-handedly propping up the economy, I try to get into the holiday spirit by watching cheesy Christmas movies on Netflix. I don't know who got the idea that Christmas was somehow an ideal setting for romance (I suppose Bing Crosby in White Christmas was the first culprit), but it is a thing, and most of the movies in this genre are painfully awful. I did, however, enjoy Holiday in the Wild, in which the protagonist (actress I didn't recognize) goes to Zambia on her second honeymoon--alone, because her husband leaves her the minute their kid heads off to college. (There's a recurring theme in these movies of characters planning elaborate, expensive trips without the buy-in or knowledge of the other person involved; see A Very Brady Christmas.) Once in Africa, she develops an attraction/antagonism for a bush pilot played by Rob Lowe. She ends up working on an elephant preserve and staying through Christmas. As far as the storyline goes, it was almost as cheesy as other holiday romance movies. But there were elephants. And Rob Lowe. And it wasn't the romance that fixed her life, it was the meaning brought to it by doing important and valuable work. It makes me think there's another, better way to do the holidays. Like rescuing orphaned elephants.

But unless tickets for an elaborate and expensive trip to Africa that's been planned without my knowledge appear in my stocking Christmas morning, I don't think baby elephants are in my future. I probably wouldn't be all that good at taking care of them anyway (I have issues with poop). But perhaps there's some other way of turning off the money spigot and finding meaning not only in this season, but in life in general. Maybe I'll start with a "Solstice, Observed" hike into the woods with my family, after the ice storm, were we can sit in the dark and listen to what each other has to say and what the trees have to tell us.

This post went out recently to subscribers of my newsletter, along with some bonus material. Subscribe here and receive a free PDF of my illustrated short essay "Eleven Ways to Raise a Wild Child" and also be entered in a monthly drawing to win a print of one of the illustrations from Uphill Both Ways.

Thursday, December 30, 2021

I Did It! 2021 (Apocalypse Year 2) Edition

For the past eight years, I've tracked my annual accomplishments via an annual I Did It! list, originally inspired by writer Lisa Romeo. Previous posts can be found here: 2020 (Apocalypse Year 1), 2019 (including decade-in-review), 201820172016201520142013

This year has felt strange, like suspended animation (or, perhaps, like college friends and I used to joke, animated suspense). Part of that has been the ongoing (never-ending) pandemic, of course, but also the limbo phase between having a book accepted for publication and actually seeing it in print (for all of you who keep asking me, "Isn't it published yet?" believe me, I feel your pain). Book work over the last year has been marked by long periods of waiting punctuated by brief flurries of activity (copy edits, proof review, etc.), which makes it hard to feel like I've accomplished anything at all. Let's review the last year and see if that's actually true.

Writing I-Did-Its!

There were the aforementioned layers of review of The Book, as well as inroads into promotion, reveal of the cover, and corresponding updates to my website and various profiles. (Do go here to pre-order if you haven't already.)

I also finished drafting a second book, a collection of essays on nature and motherhood. For some reason finishing this book felt anticlimactic. Maybe because three-fifths of it had already been written and published, so most of "drafting" it involved revising words already on the page. Or maybe because I expect the road to publication to be steeply uphill. But none of that means I don't deserve a little pat on the back, so here it is: pat, pat.

As far as short pieces go, I'm still struggling to both write and submit/publish. My submission stats for the year:

  • Submissions: 8
  • Acceptances: 0
  • Rejections: 6
  • Publications: 1

"A Review of World of Wonders by Aimee Nezhukumatathil" Literary Mama, May/June 2021

I know this is supposed to be a positive post, but oof, that's painful. Possibly the worst since I started this tradition. 

Other writing accomplishments:

  • 11 Newsletters
  • 36 blog posts (plus this one, which puts us one ahead of 2020)
  • I worked on a novel (a different one from the one I worked on last year), getting to 14,000 words before deciding I can't stand it. One day I'll make it all the way to 60,000.
  • I continued editing the Literary Reflections department at Literary Mama as well as being a senior editor, helping to bring each issue to publication.
  • I started training to become a book coach. I didn't get as far into the program as I would have liked due to time management issues, but it's my goal for 2022 to complete the training and start bringing on clients.
  • I got back into teaching nature journaling, with one remote workshop and two in-person, including one at a nature journaling conference in Acadia National Park, which was a delight.
  • I gathered a group of Maine writers I know (some of whom I only knew from the internet), who all happen to be knitters, and formed a writing group called Maine Writers and Knitters. I hosted our first get-together in October, which mostly involved getting to know each other and eating, but also included a fun and slightly woo-woo writing exercise. We clicked really well and had a second get-together early this month, this time with actual writing workshops, and we have a third planned for February. It feels so good to have some actual writing community.
  • I (virtually) attended a poetry festival and a crime writing conference.
Travel and Adventure I Did Its!

Again it wasn't much of a year for travel, but I got out a bit more than I did last year.
  • We resumed our annual Hermit Island camping trip after a two-year hiatus (one year because of the pandemic and one because of work), and I resolved to never let a crappy job get between me and my family again (ultimately quitting that crappy job).
  • We went on a fair number of kayak and canoe trips on local lakes and ponds (some of which I did solo).
  • I swam across a nearby pond with a friend once or twice a week during July and August.
  • I went on a solo hike to a tiny cabin at a nearby nature preserve.
  • I drove all the way to Colorado and back, all by myself, to help out my parents for a couple of weeks in November.
Arts and Crafts I Did Its!

My word for 2021 was "finish" and I had a list of 21 things I wanted to finish this year, many of them craft projects (some of which were WIPs and some of which were mere ideas). These are the crafty things that got finished:
  • Some handmade dollhouse furniture.
  • That '70s quilt
  • Wavy charms quilt
  • Chalk painted furniture
  • New bedroom curtains
  • Birds & blooms quilt
  • Little bird embroideries
  • The endless knitting project that I'd started at the beginning of the pandemic I put down sometime last spring and didn't pick it up again until October. It's nearly done, but I'm at a stumbling place and not quite sure how to go on, so it will have to hold off until next year's list. I also have another needlework project that's so close to being done, but not close enough to make it onto this year's list.
  • Finally, I started doing illustrations for my second book (mentioned above). I'd hoped to finish them up this month, but all of my time got sucked up by holidays, child transporting, and pandemic/ democracy anxiety.
Household I Did Its!
  • My big accomplishment here was my bedroom refresh and reading nook
  • I also deep-cleaned the living room and finally replaced our 1990s college student decor with a real couch and two swivel/glider chairs (I can't believe I don't have any photos or a blog post of these--probably because they are not the beautiful midnight blue velvet couch and orange patterned chairs I dreamed of but rather boring tan, gray, and beige). 
  • I made some more inroads into basement cleaning (two steps forward and one back in that department, always--E moved out of the room he shared with Z to the basement; and lives sprawled between the main area and M's room; then this month M moved all of his stuff home from college in preparation for a semester abroad. And everyone throws anything they don't want down there.)
  • I continued to expand my Fiesta ware collection, but at a more sedate pace than the previous year (I think this is a topic that deserves a blog post).
  • I cleaned up the sunroom, repotted several plants so now almost everything is in a pretty, non-plastic pot, and repainted two ugly plant stands a lovely bright turquoise (again, gonna need a blog post on this!).
  • expanded my pollinator garden and kept it semi-weed-free.
Nature I Did Its!
  • I did a lot of birding, especially in the spring (110 eBird checklists and 118 species), and C and I did the Christmas Bird Count for something like the seventh year in a row. I even got a couple of life birds right here on our own property, as well as one in Colorado.
  • I did a little bit of butterfly-ing and dragonfly-ing, but not as much as I would have liked.
  • I kept track of all of the wildflowers (starting with tree flowers) as they emerged in the spring and early summer (falling out of the habit in July/August) with a photo on Instagram.

Thursday, December 16, 2021

Book Stack ~ November 2021

  A monthly post about my progress toward finishing a very large stack of books. Past months' posts:

My reading goal for the last two years has been to get through this enormous stack of books that keeps migrating around my room, and so far I've done a really, really bad job of it. Many of them are books people have given me and aren't necessarily what I might have chosen myself, so I've found ways of avoiding reading them. But I've finally decided that the people who gave them to me did so for a reason--that they believed I would enjoy them--and I should stretch myself and try something different.

That's where the Penelope Lively book I read in October comes in, as well as this second one by her, Passing On. A friend, who has herself passed on, gave both to me many years ago. Like the last one, practically nothing happens in the entire book (although the thing that happens is maybe a bit more significant than the weight the author gives it; and in treating what happens lightly she also conflates homosexuality with pedophilia, which is problematic in the extreme, but I was willing to give her the benefit of it having been the "olden days" when she wrote it, but it turns out the have been published in 1999, which isn't so very long ago, so, ugh, I really can't recommend it, despite what I'm about to write in the rest of this paragraph). So, nearly nothing happens in the lives of the two main characters, who come off as dull, dull, dull, yet somehow I was drawn in and compelled to keep reading. Which seems to me to be a major writing goal--write a page-turning book about boring people who do and experience nothing of significance. In this way, I suppose Lively's writing is as realistic as you can get.

Now onto books I chose for myself. To help get me through the long, tedious drive across country, I read Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty, as a way of unwinding when I reached my hotel room each evening. It's a lovely, lovely paean to the natural world and cry for its protection from a bright young author from Northern Ireland, who writes with heartbreaking honesty about his love of nature, his autism, and his experiences being bullied for his atypical personality. If there are more teenagers like McAnulty out there (as far as I can tell, none of them live in my house), there might be hope for this world.

When I got home from my long, tedious drive back across the country, I sank into the latest Kopp Sisters novel, Miss Kopp Investigates, by Amy Stewart. I love how this series evolves, incorporating both historical facts and the author's imaginings, and bringing different members of the Kopp family to the fore with each edition (in this one youngest sister Fleurette gets to be the heroine). I also love to read a story about strong women characters for whom romance is not their primary (or even secondary or tertiary) goal or outcome. 

Finally, I listened to several audiobooks to help me get through that (say it with me) long, tedious drive across country and back, pictured in reverse order:
  • Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz. It's the sequel to Magpie Murders, which I read some time ago, and it has the same book-within-a-book setup, giving me two mysteries to solve, two narrators (one for each book), and enough twist and turns to keep my attention over endless miles of highway. Plus it was really long (over 18 hours), and got me through two and a half days of my long, tedious drive across country.
  • The Thursday Murder Club and The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman. This pair of mysteries takes place in a luxury retirement home, with an ex-MI6 agent, an aging union leader, a morose retired psychiatrist, and a former nurse as the band of unlikely sleuths solving multiple murders, breaking up organized crime rings, and sometimes contributing to the general mayhem of an otherwise sedate care continuum community. The stories are many layered and hilarious, and the narrator is a delight. I'd be tempted to go on another long, tedious drive across country just to listen to these two books again.
  • Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. This is a book I'd been *meaning* to read, but hadn't gotten around to it yet. C read it and reported that it was very strange and hard to get into. I've heard the same elsewhere, so when a friend recommended it in audio format, I figured that would get me over the hump. It was still strange and hard to get into (the hardest part is that a large percentage of especially the early part of the book is quotes from various sources, including in-text citations, which the narrator insisted on reading). I wondered at first if Saunders wasn't lazy, just using all of these quotations rather than weaving the information into a narrative, but then realized that the many conflicting accounts (beginning with Lincoln's eye color and appearance and leading into impressions of young Willie and the evening of the party while the boy lay upstairs dying) were part of the story. What is truth when everyone has a different version of it? And then the book gets really weird, with the many characters in the cemetery running around doing wacky things. It was dark by the time I got to this part, and the strange melancholy tale accompanied me across Massachusetts, through that annoying snippet of New Hampshire, and up into Maine and wrapping up just as I pulled into my driveway. So the story is all intertwined with this dark, gloomy drive, on the edge of exhaustion after a long, tedious trip across country, and I can't really say what I thought of it. I may have to go back and read the solid book.

Thursday, December 9, 2021

Where the Buffalo Roam

 I made an unexpected trip to Colorado this month. My parents were in a car accident in late September, and while I wasn't able to go out in the immediate aftermath, I was able to squeeze a trip in between the end of one kid's cross-country running season and another kid's wisdom teeth removal (my first nibble on the Sandwich Generation). It turned out that delaying my trip allowed me to be more useful than I might otherwise have been, fretting outside a hospital room. Instead I was able to help around the house and take my mom to medical appointments and get out and about. Useful is what we most want to be when someone we love is hurting. Visiting after they were home also allowed me to spend two weeks with both my parents, whom I hadn't seen in three years.

I chose to drive there, due to the pandemic, the rental car shortage, and the illusion that I could control the situation by not being beholden to an airline's timeline. Curry and I made this trip many times before kids and a few times with them, and I did it once with just the kids, when Milo had his driver's permit and was keen to take on as much of the driving duties as he was allowed (his favorite, Wyoming--"Speed limit eighty!"). But I'd never done it alone, and oh, was it a long trip. I listened to many audiobooks. I saw many miles of corn. I developed a Pavlovian response to highway interchanges wherein my palms immediately began to sweat, even if there was little traffic and clear signage.

I also saw many strange things going down the highway: An entire molded fiberglass swimming pool. Several windmill blades, each far longer than its truck and trailer. Fedex trucks towing three trailers (the only sign of a trucker shortage; there was no sign of a supply chain shortage as I passed by millions of tractor-trailer trucks each day). A truck that appeared to be full, if the signage on the outside was to be believed, of ice-cream tubs filled with bacon grease.

I found that in the states where the billboards for Jesus were the largest, so too were the billboards for strip clubs and sex toy shops. In Iowa a farm had mounted satellite dishes on every fence post along miles of highway, each painted in a different brightly colored design, a drive-by art installation. In Kansas, I hit a tumbleweed almost as big as my car. It splintered into a million tiny shards like a dandelion clock blown in the wind.

And in Colorado, on my way out of town, I stopped and visited the bison. My first year out of college I spent as an AmeriCorps volunteer in Aurora, and for one of our projects we worked on the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, a chemical-weapons-facility-turned-nature-preserve in one of those particularly 20th-century ironies where the only undeveloped land is that which is too toxic for people. My team spent our days there digging up Russian thistle and planting American plum (oh, the Cold War symbolism). The place was pretty much a windswept plain of grass and weeds, with roaming mule deer, burrowing prairie dogs, and a few settling ponds that had been recently remediated for organochlorine pesticides, dioxin, PCBs, and other terrible things under Superfund. Sometime in the twenty-five years since I worked there, bison have been introduced, and I hadn't had a chance to see them yet.

So despite the lateness of the hour when I finally rousted myself from the embrace of family for the long trip home, I stopped by on my way out of town, and walked along a trail until I cam within sight of my quarry: the American bison, a herd of at least 60 or 70 animals, beyond a very tall fence. Most of them were lying in the grass, enjoying the view of some strange-looking clouds and the mountains beyond the brown haze of Denver. A few wandered from clump to clump of fellow bison, and the young ones pranced around, and every time one moved, a thin column of dust rose, and you could imagine the dust cloud a great herd might have generated when migrating across the plains. I stood for a long time, sketching and feeling a mixture of awe at this magnificent remnant of our continent's past and melancholy that this is it--this small herd, penned in by a very tall fence and developments encroaching from every direction (despite the Superfund site and the nearby dog-food factory and feed lots). Yet, despite their diminished prairie, despite their limited range, I'm glad they're there, and I'm glad I took the time to stop and say hello.

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