Thursday, August 28, 2008

Just Horsing Around

Do YOU enjoy horses?

In 1986 on a visit to St. Bonifacious, Minnesota, I came face to face with a terrifying new challenge: riding horses. The Stanchfield farm stood on the edge of a grove of old oak trees at the end of a long dirt road. Crisp autumn air blew through the slats on the corral fence as the horses within slowly walked the perimeter. “Would you guys like to ride?” called Judy from the doorway of the barn. “Ah, sure,” I answered for Nola and myself, not really sure if I actually did want to ride. “Well, go on into the fence at the gate and wait there for me,” replied Judy as she finished feeding the baby cows their test formula. You see the Stanchfield farm tested new and “improved” animal feed on young cattle as a part of its function. The horses were just for fun we were told. “Have you guys ridden before?” asked Judy as she approached the two of us. Nola replied that neither of us had ever ridden before other than a trail ride or two in the Eagle River area so we were not too familiar with the process.

Nola was introduced to a older female whose name was, “Misty.” I was led over to a younger male who as luck would have it, carried the moniker of “Rocket.” “He’s a good horse. You shouldn’t have any trouble with him,” stated Judy in a matter of fact way. I should have known better even then as I approached Rocket and he stared at me as if to say, “Whoo boy, here’s a live one…y’all watch this.” With Nola mounted in her saddle, I grasped the horn and swung my leg up and over as I’d seen John Wayne do on many TV westerns. “That wasn’t so bad,” I thought as my rump settled into the leather cradle. Judy handed me the reins and said, “OK, just kick his flank a bit to get him started,” and she backed away towards the fencing to watch. Big mistake. I did as she instructed and suddenly Rocket was off like one to the other end of the hard-packed corral at a dead run.

I jerked back into the saddle and my head whipped like a rag doll as Rocket kept gaining speed. I pulled back on the reins with both hands until the bit dug into his mouth as deep as it was ever going to, but still the horse ran at top speed towards the other side of the fence. Bam, bam, bam went the saddle under my butt as I let out a whoop and desperately hung on with both knees as the ground below whizzed by. Just as I felt we were about to smash into the adjacent fence, Rocket pulled up and turned around. “Whew!” I exhaled, as it appeared as if the nightmarish ride was finally over. I looked over at Judy from the opposite side of the fenced area and was about to say something when Rocket took off again at break-neck speed back. Uh, Uh, Uh, Uh, Uh! Was about all I could get to escape as my body bucked up and down on Rocket’s back. Pulling the reins back with all my might, Rocket seemed to increase his top speed and mock my attempts to control his movements as he raced headlong to the other side once again. This terrifying sequence repeated itself two more times with my anxiety growing by the second as I failed in the slightest way to make Rocket do anything I wished.

Just when I thought I’d have to hold on until my next birthday, Judy stepped in and distracted Rocket with a carrot so that he braked so instantly I almost flipped over his lowered head. Judy had a look of embarrassment as she tried to explain that he’d never done that before. I shakily dismounted and kissed the ground I’d almost been tossed upon. “Damn!” I exclaimed, “I don’t ever want to do that again.”I guess I can honestly say that horses and I do not understand each other...

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Remembering Mom

Joan Devereaux - (Dear Mother of the Birdstud) {8-20-1938 to 2-2-2008}

You often are a product of your upbringing. I definitely am. I owe my love of birds to my departed Mom. It's her birthday today, she would have been 70. Since this is the first anniversary of her birth since her death on the 2nd of February, 2008 I wished to retell the story of her last days on this earth...

The urgent phone call came to me at around 4:00 PM on Wednesday January 30. As Mom lay (propped into a semi-sitting position) in the “hospital bed” in her living room, her tortured cancer-riddled body had given hospice workers subtle indications that she was “days away” from passing. These warning signs were passed on to Dad and sister, Lisa and in turn they notified the rest of the immediate family of the inevitable.

Being careful to include the comfy over-sized “Up North” sweatshirt that Mom had gifted me several Christmases prior; I packed up a suitcase with a few days’ clothes Wednesday evening. I then gathered a few more things I thought I would need and placed them near the door for tomorrow’s departure, and then eventually went to bed for the night thinking about her while tightly clutching our (bedroom color-matched/Mom-manufactured) crocheted afghan.

With the blessings and well wishes of Nola, Dedra, and Max, I was able to escape work responsibilities and leave from Milwaukee around noon on Thursday January 31st driving my old truck up highway 45 toward Rhinelander. About 10 minutes in to the 4-hour drive I phoned Mom’s house. Denise answered (good, she was already there). I explained that I was “on my way”. She relayed the message to Mom who wished to speak to me. The weakened (eager) nearly breathless “I love you” that came through the phone was just what I needed to keep me focused on the lonely drive north.

As I opened the door to my parent’s house a welcoming chorus of “Joe’s here” rang out. Mother looked up (clearly relieved) from her bed with a big smile, as I came to give her an eager kiss. I whispered in her ear that I was glad she waited for me and that I loved her so much. I announced to my Dad that I would be staying in the house (with him and mother) and would even sleep “log-like still” on one side along the mattress piping of his king-sized bed if I had to, but I wished to remain in the house. He laughed and said although it was OK if that’s what I wanted, he did indeed have a small cot in an adjacent room. I tromped in and out the door with my belongings for a few minutes being careful to stomp off the clinging snow onto the rug. The small blast of cold January air that escaped into the room with each trip back and forth to my truck seemed to be a welcome distraction to those gathered around her bedside, as no one seemed to take offense.

After settling into the small multi-purpose room that also served as a place where Dad could continue to perform his important work for the State of Wisconsin reviewing plumbing plans, I greeted everyone and received the most recent update on her dwindling condition. I sat next to her taking her warm hand in mine. Her carefully manicured and painted fingernails lied to the outside world as to her actual physical shape, but indicated a deep love and respect from the daughter who was responsible. Her once bright eyes now appeared slightly dimmer and extremely exhausted from the long battle she had endured and seemed to know was yet to come, in the minutes, hours and days ahead.

The girls (her faithful and adoring daughters) insisted on an impromptu “slumber party” in the living/dying room by her side, that night. None of the assembled vigil would or could know until later, how Thursday afternoon and evening would be Mom’s best (or her last) coherent moments with us. Regretfully and with a heavy heart son Chuck excused himself to his family in Sugar Camp fervently eliciting promises from those who remained behind to call him the moment something changed. Excusing myself to the tiny room, I unpacked and set-up the computer and scanner I had brought with me from Milwaukee, and proceeded to slowly (digitally) capture all of Mom’s print and photographic memories from a small plastic box where she kept them. Funny we all seem to imagine how people’s full lives can be reduced to a few keepsakes, trinkets and images, but each one of us have something that we feel identifies us and makes us matter in the grand scheme. Yellowed and brittle newspaper clippings, booklets from obscure events, dateless black and white prints, torn ticket stubs, and certificates of achievement mean something to the saver but most often can’t tell the story behind them. This I sadly discovered as I examined each kept thread of my mother’s existence and attempted to manufacture my own special meaning and chronology. How I wished to have had her by my side narrating as I peeled each layer back, yet I remained determined, yes driven to give her survivors a precious gift and mother a tangible legacy. You see Mom was not one to ever blow her own horn, create attention to her exploits, or even think of bragging her accomplishments. So as a result of the many hours spent between taking in as much of the present living/dying Joan Devereaux as I could handle and reliving her wonderful past through her keepsakes, the hole she would leave in all our lives grew deeper and wider. Baby Joan, teenage Joan, big-hair Joan, classy Joan; all of the many images that made up her life flashed on my computer screen as I lovingly handled and prepared each memory as if it were (as if she were) vibrantly alive. How does one fully represent someone’s life in a matter of minutes? It was with immense privilege I accepted such a daunting challenge but as the hours went by I began to feel woefully inadequate to the task.

Mom was a “real looker”, and she displayed that beauty as expertly as the model she had once trained to be long ago. Dozens of poses, hair styles, hair colors, and outfits each carefully chosen and each appropriate to the times were captured on the photos I sorted through. I feverishly kept up my quest determined to immerse myself so deep into her past that I almost felt as if she would not die if I doggedly kept up my digging and research into her life. Each time I took a break to check on her, convinced she was going to be sitting in a chair quietly watching TV or knitting, I was cruelly reminded of her current reality. “It’s not fair” my mind screamed. “This just sucks” would follow. There could be no sense to any of it. She was much too young and special to so many for this to be happening.

Meanwhile Dad would pace, the sisters would fuss and medicate and the rest would sit quietly alternating worrying and praying over Mom. In what now seems all a blur; home hospice workers (both Aides and Nurse) came, tended, advised, and cared about all of us over the next 36 hours. Wonderful friends and neighbors dropped in with well wishes and food for the rest of us you could muster up an appetite. Joan had long ago stopped being either interested (or capable) of eating and was now only accepting syringe-filled morphine doses and droplets of water from the loving hand of her family entourage. But, she was HERE in HER home surrounded by loved ones who not once shied from any task no matter how difficult, complicated or unpleasant. My sisters and brother comforted my father, each other and me with their stories, and humor as the tense Friday hours wore on.

Very early Saturday morning, as I lie in my cot in the small room which had become my private escape and workshop, I could have sworn I heard strains of Amazing Grace in the next room. I came around the corner in the still pre-dawn darkened room to discover that Denise had been sitting very near Mom singing softly. This was to be Mom’s last day on the earth and my sister had sweetly set the tone. Stories about the final day will vary from person to person and I know I’ll eventually hear them all, but my favorite moment of the day came at no particular memorable minute to me now, but the effect was lasting. I was on one of my sorties past mother when she opened her eyes briefly. I paused, waved to her from the foot of the bed and smiled at her. She looked back at me, eyes filling with recognition, and smiled the most beautiful smile I had ever received. As a quick as the moment came it evaporated as she again closed her eyes and went back to the place in her mind where she was fast retreating. That smile, that single wonderful, loving smile will remain on my top 10 list of all time. Thanks Mom.

Finally around 5 PM on Saturday the tribute to Mom was ready. I removed it from the computer’s CD burner and put it in the living/dying room’s DVD player. The family group assembled in a semi-circle and we all sat both smiling and crying as we alternated between watching the TV screen and mother‘s shallow labored breathing as she lay on the bed. I needed to get out for a breather after that so I left for a short time to purchase supplies for the reproduction of copies of the tribute. Upon my return from a local store I busied myself with the last task of duplication while every so often pausing to either look closely at Mom or to sit for a few minutes holding her (non-Lisa occupied) right hand. (You see Lisa had connected herself to mother’s left hand and was not about to give it up.) If love was a cure our mom would not only have beat cancer but would also have lived forever.

At approximately 8:00 PM Lisa and Denise noticed some vast changes in Mom’s physiology (stemming from her toes on up her lower body) and pointed them out to me and then to Dad. More pain-controlling liquid morphine was administered into her open mouth (as scheduled) around that time as well and an alert went out to all assembled. Her breathing changed yet again in the next few minutes to something totally different (akin to agonal breathing) and ineffectual as Dad and then each child took turns gently kissing her, whispering a special private message into her ear. Just as Denise was about to complete her turn, I noticed that Mom had stopped breathing altogether. A spontaneous recitation of the Our Father prayer began and we all held each other while weeping and crying uncontrolled bursts as the realization hit us that she had passed away. I glanced at my wristwatch and saw that it was 8:30 exactly. I felt for signs of life in her and found none. It had happened. Her glorious spirit had taken flight. Now we all cried for ourselves and the future.

All that is left of dear sweet Joan (Wife, mother, grandmother, sister, aunt, friend) besides the memories, photos and plaques are; the scent of gardenia, turquoise jewelry, various yummy crowd-pleasing recipes she handed down and taught each of us to perfect, the way she pronounced the word package in the South Milwaukee way as “paggage”, samples of careful handwriting, Hummingbirds, Loons and the joy of birds in general, bottles of nail polish, slot machines awaiting a “pull” of the handle, America’s Funniest Home Videos, new things in the grocery store to be tried, internet shopping, her purse, her determination, her strength, her selflessness and her legacy (which is in each of us), to carry on. We’ll miss you Mom…Happy Birthday!


­­By: Joseph E. Devereaux

Long ago and far away, was born a gentle soul

One of five blessed with a twin, she made her family whole.

From early on her beauty shone, with grace personified,

Kind and patient careful girl, fate to be her guide.

Country girl to city girl, and everything between,

Flowers, fashion, style and charm, the best he’d ever seen.

A handsome prince and promises would sweep her off her feet,

Into his loving arms she fell with happiness complete.

Doting wife her sacrifice was personal career,

Faithful husband fairytale regrets were none, no fear.

Mother dear to children four, her family to sustain

Resources thin, invention high, make do and don’t complain.

A friend to creatures great and small, to care for them she’d try,

Things that slither, crawl, and hop and other things that fly.

She’d decorate her hearth and home with more than she could use,

Though give it all away she would, like jewelry and shoes.

Voice as smooth as polished glass, soothing to the ear,

Singing softly round the house, her children longed to hear.

Driven volunteer was not afraid to take the lead,

Willingly she’d raise her hand and tackle any deed.

Loved to cook though not a chef her recipes could vary,

Tasty dishes she prepared are all but legendary.

Entrepreneur, idea-girl, and partner to her man,

Work side by side together on the business master plan.

Our dear old friend whose luck ran out, one February day,

So many happy times to share, until she went away.

Her bravery and strength was surely testament to all,

Live your life with no regrets and answer every call.

Sweet memories are all we have of Joan, to keep inside,

She heard God whisper, “Hummingbird, it’s time for you to fly”

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Birding by Bicycle

Coasting quietly on a well-worn path along a magnificently wooded bluff, some small sound catches your ear. You pause along the trail and wait. Now a graceful floating movement causes you to turn your head and gaze into the thick stand of trees. There on the side of a large cedar tree grasps an elusive Pileated Woodpecker, in all its splendor. You have just been “birding by bicycle”.

Peninsula State Park in Door County Wisconsin, offers nearly 6 miles of smooth graveled surface trails and an additional 9 miles of rugged unsurfaced terrain for off road bicycling enthusiasts. These trails visit nearly every conceivable birding habitat from lakefront to deep woods. Bicycling with binoculars is a great way to cover more territory, get some additional exercise, and see more species.

Campers within the park are regularly treated to daily early morning serenades and bustling activity right in their sites, but they have to be paying attention. For a few hours after sunrise each day during the summer months, American Redstarts flit in and out of the low shrubbery catching insects for their first meals of a busy day. These diminutive black, orange, and yellow birds often land in close proximity to humans, pausing on the woodpile, or picnic table, before dashing off with a flick and twist of their tails. Listen to the sounds around the campsite to direct your attention to other visitors like Red and White-Breasted Nuthatches, Chickadees, Hairy and Downey Woodpeckers, Northern Cardinals and even the infrequent aforementioned Pileated.

Get on the bicycle armed with your binoculars and perhaps a camera, to find yourself an open meadow surrounded by a ring of trees. If you pause along the edge and are still for a few moments gazing into the trees, you will probably be rewarded with the activity of insect and berry-eating Cedar Waxwings as they emerge, catch and disappear over and over again. These sleek looking, buff-colored, black masked, crested birds also have yellow-tipped tails that flash while in flight. Riding slowly through the woods near the Eagle Bluff lighthouse, make sure to keep an eye out for foraging groups of Wild Turkey in the underbrush. They prefer eating acorns and nuts of various trees as well as seeds, insects and berries. Since the turkeys were first successfully reintroduced into Wisconsin in 1976, population levels continue to increase and expand statewide.

The expansive rocky shoreline of Lake Michigan is also home to many species of waterfowl. Gulls, White Pelicans, Cormorants, Killdeer, Canada Geese, and Wood Duck are among the residents and visitors to the area, and can easily be seen via the paths that run along the water’s edge. So the next time you are out for some Door County (or any other) birding, consider the bicycle as a “natural” partner.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Birds and Ham Salad?

Two of my favorite things are Birds and Deli-prepared ham salad.

Now I admit there is nothing in common with the two, other than my love for each. Do you have things you love? Have you thought about it? Have you decided on any? Are there sinful pleasures you indulge in that no one else understands and possibly even criticizes, but you persist and enjoy regardless? ...and no it's not "irregardless," that's not a real word, you people who use it...and you know who you are. If you are anything like me, (and God help you if you are) and you have more interests than any human being should have in one lifetime, finding those things that are TRULY favorites, is difficult. However, I still recommend that you try to narrow it down a bit, as those around you get dizzy watching the fervor of your many interests causing you to spin in place. Enter: Birds and Ham Salad.

You may ask me, "Birdstud, is it possible to go birding WITH a ham salad sandwich?" My answer to that would be a timid, "I don't know, I have not tried it, as yet." But I would be quick to follow that reply up with, "It does not matter that you do both things at once, only that you ENJOY each with a clear conscious, while fully admitting and embracing them."

Find YOUR Birds and YOUR ham salad, and rejoice!

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Sand Dunes and Birds

Indigo Buntings fill the warm moist morning air with their bright and cheery song of "fire; fire; where? where? here; here; see it? see it?" as I walked along the grass-lined sandy path to the campground's Nature Trail.

Warren Dunes State Park, Saywer, MI is located on the eastern shores of one of the Great Lakes, Lake Michigan. My family likes to call this area "Poor Man's Florida" and for good reason; the beaches are beautifully sandy, the temperature is hot (when we go in July) and the water isn't salty (a BIG plus when you are in the throes of a huge wave, and you end up swallowing a mouthful!) But the biggest advantage is the close proximity to Milwaukee, WI, and the fact that you can reach your vacation destination in under 4 hours, even driving around the black hole of timely vehicular travel, Chicago. As my blog often tends to be travelouge and personal review of various destinations (both birding and non-birding related) anyway, I might as well share with you my little secret drivning tip for getting around Chicago; leave EARLY in the morning and have in your vehicle, an "I-PASS" device. There are many ways around the "Loop" but I'll stick to the I-294, (9 times out of 10) so I can set the cruise control and relax as the automated tolls tick off all fifteen dollars from my account balance, for the entire run around the horn. (You pull a camper or trailer, you pay for another axel (or two) and the price rises accordingly...crooks!) So now with the I-Pass, the money still evaporates from my wallet, but I (at least) don't have to GIVE it to them...

Back to the campground and the birding thing again...the Nature Trail splits at a tee section 50 yards in from the camping access roadway. Right takes you north along (and behind) the campsites on a narrow pathway (mostly) devoid of nasty plants that can make you itch and scratch uncontrollably. Left heads south for a bit, turning west at the foothill of a 100 foot tall sand dune that rises up from the forest floor at roughtly a 50 degree angle. This challenging climb was the favorite of the many campers and hikers throughout the 3 days of our stay, and a particular favorite of my daughter and her friend in the evening, because of the only cell-phone reception at its summit. Right (north) was the direction I spent the most time exploring as it seemed to provide the greatest variety of species during the broadest part of the day. In addition to the aforementioned buntings, I also cataloged the following; American Redstart, Chestnut Sided Warbler, Blue-Winged Warbler, Yellow Warbler, House Wren, Song Sparrow, Northern Flicker, Northern Cardinal, Black-capped Chickadee, White-breasted Nuthatch, American Robin, Eastern Towhee, Red-eyed Vireo, Warbling Vireo, Least Flycatcher, Tufted Titmouse, Eastern Wood Pewee, Eastern Phoebe, Mourning Dove, Red-tailed Hawk, and Chipping Sparrow. Along the lake shore few other birds congregated, however I did get to see Ring-billed and Herring Gulls, along with one solitary Royal Tern flying north towards Benton Harbor, MI. A single Yellow-headed Vireo was also sitting in a tall tree near the beach house power station. I had a great time plodding along the sand dunes looking at, and listening to Savannah Sparrows at sunset one evening. The sun had turned orange as it slowly sank into the horizon, bringing a candy-coated hue to the area, as a few children slid down the inclines on boards strapped to the bottoms of their feet. I hiked up and over, back toward the comfort of the Jayco, just as darkness won the battle over light for another day. Birding is a great excuse for taking vacations both far away, and just around the corner. Try it sometime.