Rancho Retro

digital painting from a photoWhere have all the cowboys gone?

Barely three decades ago, when I first traveled abroad, it wasn’t uncommon to be looked at as quite the curiosity by Europeans on their learning that I lived on the far western edge of the United States. It took me a bit of prying and a double-take or two to discover that some folk outside of North America had no more recent imagery attached to the American West than covered wagons and cowboys rounding up mustangs of a particularly non-automotive sort. I got the impression that a few of these acquaintances were genuinely puzzling over the image of me going to buy dry goods on the bench of a venerable buckboard. No surprise that this didn’t dovetail perfectly with the person standing in front of them sans bonnet and petticoats, so I suppose a little cognitive dissonance was to be expected.

What wasn’t expected was an idea of America that seemed so humorously archaic to me, but then the many years passed and I moved to Texas and discovered that the American West had merely shrunk a bit over the years. Once the tide of non-native migration had swept across the continent and splashed onto the shores of its far coast, the wave seems to have receded gradually and settled back a little farther inland. Where fishermen and foresters could more easily embrace the coastal life, the settlers who intended to keep riding the range with their herds were logically drawn into the vast middle of the country where land was still open enough to be that range. I can attest that I’ve not yet seen the old one-room schoolhouse in Ponder filled with current students, least of all equipped at their desks with inkwells in which to dip each other’s braids, nor do the hands all ride horseback every day anymore: they pile on their ATVs and into their big-axle F150s and go about their business with cellphones glued to their downwind ears.

The venerable and beautiful farmhouses and barns still dotting the highway side of the farms and ranches are largely in a state of slow collapse and empty as a politician’s promises, looking for all the world like Dust Bowl reenactor sets. But if I squint a little and slow down to avoid the road kill as the rest of the world zooms by on I-35, I can see that the ranchers have merely relocated to be farther back on the acreage and have more room for their massive faux-Chateau ranches with mile-high roofs and the barns for their hybrid beef cattle stretching to the invisible horizon beyond. Even the hay bales have grown into giant water tower-sized behemoths that would crush the balers that used to pop out little sugarcubes of hay. Every darn thing is bigger and more commercially driven and faster…and yet, there they are on the ridgeline over there, a couple of leathery guys on paint horses, sauntering toward the gully as they hunt up the boss in his Jeep, who isn’t answering his cellphone because on a 14,000 acre ranch nobody can be bothered to find him to make him do it.

And as briefly as I’ve lived in Texas, I know by now that when the three of them eventually get back to the ranch house, they’ll be putting up their boots, eating brisket that’s been on the smoker since this morning, and washing it down with a cold Lone Star longneck. Some of the cowboys may have traded in their saddles for a four-wheel drive, but some things haven’t changed so all-fired much.

Smart as a Pig

digital illustrationIt’s good that fiction has not entirely neglected the intelligence of the porcine race. There are such admirable figures as the marvelous Wilbur, saved in E. B. White’s superb story by that great media campaign waged by the arachnid heroine of ‘Charlotte’s Web‘; the stalwart Babe of Dick King-Smith’s ‘The Sheep-Pig‘, famous for being Farmer Hoggett’s eventual go-to pig for sheep herding and assorted acts of clever heroism; there’s the not so brilliant but ever so endearing Porky Pig, he of the stammering charm and accidental accomplishments. There are Snowball and Napoleon, who use their canny piggy wits in a dystopian world to prove that some pigs are more equal than others, a less sweet and engaging use of porcine wit and intelligence than some might like, but they are still outnumbered in the literary pen by Miss Potter’s little creature Pigling Bland and his far less bland but equally stimulating porker, Mr. Wodehouse’s Empress of Blandings.

All of these, of course owe a certain debt to their famous forebears (or forepigs) who were Little in size and Three in number. The Three Little Pigs, not all of them geniuses, I grant you, manage eventually to outwit the beastly Wolf. They’re so good at it, in fact, that their cleverness has continued to be immortalized for ages since their first appearance and they star in everything from many classic-styled re-tellings to a wide range of variants like Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s delightful ‘True Story‘ and even the Ninjas in Corey Rosen Schwartz’s version.

And still there are so many real, live pigs with even more impressive mental acuity than all of those little pretend ones put together; just ask any pig person (farmer or veterinarian or person with a companion animal). Ask Celi over at thekitchensgarden about Sheila’s exploits and the adventures and discoveries of the plonkers (the half-grown young pigs); go over there and Search her site for Sheila posts, and you too will grow wiser.

I hear a lot of people praising horses for being as intelligent as dogs and dogs, then, as smart as apes; apes, in their turn, for being as smart as their cousin humans—but I would be pretty flattered, myself, if anyone found me as clever as a pig.

Hot Flash Fiction 7: The Scientists’ Children

It was pretty rare and indeed a little suspect back in those days that both husband and wife were scientists. That the Cruikshanks, odd ducks each one, also both taught the Modern Sciences at the local normal school only opened them to further scrutiny and whispering. So when Rupert’s distant aunt died and left him her desolate hardscrabble farm and its rickety frame house at the dead end of the worst road in a dry, mean county, husband and wife packed up their trunks, borosilicate retorts and all, and moved right out to that far frontier, disappearing as though in a puff of salty dust. It was only some years later, when they began to appear in search of provisions at the nearest town’s dry goods emporium with their two remarkable young children in tow, that folk in that region began to guess that perhaps the inexplicable strangeness of the Cruikshank life was not lessened, let alone ended, by any means.digital collage

Barnyard or Gallery?

photoCow Art

I wonder if you flinch at all

At cows upon the bedroom wall

That have great horns and twitching tails—

The massive cow that seldom fails

To win a ribbon at the fair—

Perhaps it’s odd to see them therephotoBut I admire those cows, you see,

And like them watching over me

To fend off any sleepless nights

And fill my dreams with cow delightsphoto

Seasonal Happiness

photoFarm Land

Few things can match the beauty of

Black soil that’s newly tilled

And redolent of things to come

As soon as March’s chilled

Cold heart has given up his hold

And April’s warmth begun

To set the life-renewing pulse

Of earth under her sun.photo montage

Birds of a Brilliant Feather Flock Together

I do love peacocks and admire their showy plumage and all of the other attributes that I anthropomorphize to my great delight. Birds, in general, are a subject of my fondness for their wonderful and weird and wildly showy beauties, and peacocks merely one of the more obvious kings of my affections. Another variety of bird of which I’m quite enamored is the chicken, with the many distinctive shapes, colors, and personalities in its species.

Roosters, of course, are often (though not always) the showiest and most individualistic of their kind. Men. Whatever anyone says about women being the self-absorbed sex when it comes to appearances clearly hasn’t looked around at all of the coiffed, tattooed, jeweled, made-up, well-heeled males wandering around humankind throughout history let alone at the range of male beauty in the beastly realms. The other kinds of beasts, I mean.

But enough scorning of sexist talk. I’m here to admire birds, roosters in particular, and Celi’s handsome cockerel specifically. She never fails to show her animal menagerie in a glorious light, even when they’re cutting quite the junior-miscreant capers, and I’m quite certain that it’s her great affection for them that makes them look their best in her every shot. Well, that and a whole barge-full of skill and art on her part. In any event, I have fallen in love with all of the residents of her ‘farmy’ right along with Celi herself, and while I should most like to have paid tribute to her gorgeous rooster in person or at least with an exquisitely embroidered silk panel in the Chinese style to give him his full due, I can’t fly, and my own skills in embroidery are more of the oops-I-stitched-it-to-my-own-leg and what-is-that-weird-spiderweb varieties, so here I made a pretense of embroidering by using my digital stitchery. I do mean well.digital artwork from a photo by Cecilia G

Pop Peacock

Count me among the millions enamored of those strange birds Mother Nature garbs in the most exotic finery yet makes the comic relief when it comes to songbird status. Peacocks are hardly the scaredy-pants of the menagerie, but you’d never guess it when you hear their guttural squawks of Help! Help!! across the way. From what I’ve seen, this propensity for sounding the alarm does in fact make them rather handy gatekeepers for herd and flock, but as for any timidity, that seems to be far outweighed by their curiosity, which instead makes them as bold as their colors would imply.

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The Love Song of Alfred J. Peacock

All of this makes them quite fascinating to me, and not only so because of my persistent attraction to all things gloriously colorful and iridescent. It also, serendipitously, makes them relatively approachable when they don’t feel threatened, so besides being photogenic they are also photograph-able. So I have a small but nice collection of peacock portraits and closeups of their dramatically beautiful details from which I can make playful peacock artworks. I share here a trio of my ‘recombinant peacock’ digital pieces using the same elements I’ve shot to create slightly different effects.

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Psychedelic Peacocks

The peacocks gave their tacit permission. And I, magpie-type bird that I am, can’t help but oblige. Help! Help!! Help!!!

digital artwork

Peacock Moire

Home and Deranged

photoA Particular Kind of Homesickness

The road we ride is an old back road, a highway that goes nowhere fast,

and as we drive and drift and dream, we see the present meet the past,

the way that it has always done from cities to the countryside,

the way we know that history recycles us, and far and wide,

we all return to what we’ve known and circle back to home and hearth

whether together or alone, to best-loved places on the earth.

Is it just crazy, that we long to find ourselves in Mama’s arms,

in childhood’s safety, in our fondest corner of our homes, our farms,

our gardens, houses, classrooms, fields? Is this insanity, or just

finding our life and hope and heart in best-loved places, as we must?

Return to rooted, distant loves, become simplicity and grace,

and find the fields of gold we seek in each his own familiar place.photo

Foodie Tuesday: In Praise of Little Things

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A sea of green goodness growing . . .

It’s so often the littlest details that have the most unexpectedly impressive impact. We just don’t expect too much from small stuff. But where would we be without those tiny crystals of salt and jots of freshly ground spices? Without the tiny seeds that become minute sprouts and in turn, lush plants that give life to our favorite fruits and vegetables, and that feed the animals that grace our tables sacrificially?

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Red cabbage, well watered . . .

My tiny mite of a farm is bursting with promise. It won’t be all that long before I’m harvesting cut-and-come-again salad greens, herbs and baby carrots and beets. My patience is an equally miniscule thing, so I hover over their beds and fuss as though my attention would do anything other than attract more insects to come and flit around my head. Meanwhile, I can always raid the grocer’s stock of edible things to keep the table well decorated, no matter how plain or fancy my edible desires.

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Cauliflower, admittedly no less delicious if I have to snag it at the market than if it came from my own private patch of dirt . . .

Another highly welcome Little Thing is a raindrop. Lord knows we’ve dreamed of them with something verging on the unseemly in our drought of recent past. But like the seasoning of a dish, what is desirable in a little may be wildly inappropriate if given with too much exuberance. Today it’s looking a little iffy in that regard: we’ve been told in the last couple of weeks that thanks to the new year’s rains, most of Texas has already bypassed the borders of drought and headed right into surfeit territory. Outside is a pounding rain, accompanied by beautiful flashes of brilliance slicing up the sky and shouts of thunder pounding down right along with the cataracts of rain. Not thirty minutes away there are reports of a tornado and baseball-sized hail. There are expectations that this storm system will throw off a few more tornadoes and lots more wind and rain and hail before it’s done. Me, I’m keeping a good thought for all of the people, animals, houses, and cars being blasted by the wind and pelted with rocks of ice, and hoping against hope that none of that nonsense wanders over this way too. We have plenty of friends in the area whose roofs have been demolished or cars totaled by that sort of thing before.

My little item of great happiness at the moment is that not only am I cozily dry under a roof out of the lashings of rain, but our car is in the safest place it could possibly be to hide from the storm: on a mechanic’s lift at the place where we bought it. It was merely due for its periodic checkup (taking inspiration, perhaps, from my own recent annual visits to the doctor and radiologist and such), but couldn’t have been timed better in terms of dodging the fiercest part of the storm. I hope. Not to mention that the mechanic discovered that the two tires not replaced following our recent road-debris encounter are worn down to replacement status as well. If I’m going to drive around in this kind of flash-flood-inducing waterfall, I may as well have good tires. After all, it’s only money. Sigh.

Which brings me back ‘round to my original point (and I did have one). Life is just too short to be spent without savoring all of the minor triumphs, moments of good luck and serendipity, and all of the tiny treats that we can find or are handed to us. And by that, I mean of course that I will continue to eat snacks and desserts with a certain amount of regularity if not abandon, because they are seriously happiness-inducing items in my life. Who am I to refuse to attend when the last fridge stash of guacamole and the tuna salad from yesterday’s sandwich get all friendly and decide to get married and become a cracker spread? I would have missed a great party!

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Cheese and choccies--where could you go wrong?

On the 17th of March we had a friend visit for dinner. Since she’s of partially Irish descent, I thought it incumbent to include an item or two with at least a hint of Irish pedigree in the meal, though I didn’t quite go all-in, so I incorporated a few tasty tributes to the Emerald Isle. It was ‘specially easy to do at the end of the meal. I’d happened on an inspiring sounding cheese, so dessert was a little plate of cheese and chocolate. I served my little homemade chocolate-nut truffles with the loveliest Guinness-infused cheddar cheese that, at room temperature, tasted buttery, the tiniest bit sharp, and had that mellow veining of stout bringing another nice layer of complementary flavor to the collation. Needless to say, this combination goes down quite smoothly with a tot of good Irish whiskey (well, what doesn’t?) or of course would be appropriately paired with a crisp Guinness, if it’s on hand. We had it with a bit of bubbly because I’m certain that St. Patrick would approve of our saying a fond thank you to and well-wishing a certain great—-grandniece of his who has been a fine colleague and a good friend and is soon off on a new adventure in an altogether more Irish-rooted American city.

I leave you without a real new recipe today, I guess, but sometimes the moment presents itself when something that requires no new preparations at all but is just as delicious as can be is just the bite or sip to be enjoyed on the spot. There are times when the company is so grand, the bottle cracked open is so perfectly aged, and the slant of the sun so perfectly angled in the proper window that whatever we take to eat is a tiny taste of heaven. It’s like being visited by a butterfly that comes and takes its rest right at my feet and sits patiently to have its portrait taken before fluttering away, for no apparent reason other than to bring its own miniature glint of perfect beauty to the day.photo

. . . and just so you know, no tornadoes or monstrous hailstorms have ventured into our town today. Another nice little plus for the occasion!

Just be Glad You aren’t Starring in a 1950s Sci-Fi Movie

We are, I am told, going to have a big, I mean BEEEEEEG, year for bugs here in last year’s drought country. And by bugs, I mean insects of the pesky and biting and stinging and flitting and I-won’t-even-post-pictures-of-them (you may thank me now, John, Teri, et al.) varieties, the ones that descend on the garden and leave it as a small quivering heap of dusty tendrils that give a last shudder and fall to the ground, dead. The ones that swarm around my head and ankles in grim, itch-inducing clouds of biblical proportions and leave me wanting to explode into equally lifeless dust.

acrylic on paper

Hello, Hell . . .

First we had a dry, hot year that sent a whole lot of bug-dom into hibernatory hiding. (Along with a whole lot of humanity ’round here.) Then there was this thing that purported to be winter but, in its temperate reality, was a very mild-mannered and brief cooling-off period during which the parched local world relaxed and the bugs began to feel quite welcome to reappear mighty early: mosquitoes bit me when I should have been wearing long underwear–though thankfully, not in my long-underwear regions, which would have been just too cruel for words. The return of rain here, which now to our astonishment puts much of Texas back on the plus side of normal precipitation levels and well out of drought status, was a regular engraved invitation to come and goof off at the spa, as far as the local insect population was concerned. Suddenly, flies are humming around in a leisurely landing approach to put their nasty feet and probosces on every morsel of goodness that appears, whether it’s a deliciously pretty bit of food on the table where I do not desire their company or the addition of their delicious crunch and protein to the dish, or it’s insecti-goodness of the garbage and compost varieties. Grubs and mandible-gnashers rolled out their equivalent of the heavy equipment and got down to serious work devouring tender green things left and right. And my quick walk across a grassy area acted like a strafing run in a bomber, sending up masses of craneflies like so much blasted, spiky shrapnel.

I have a special hatred for craneflies, I’ll admit, and for bugs that eat my plants or nip at my personage. I may be truly enamored of all sorts of crawly things as intriguing subjects at least when I’m safely insulated from actual contact with them, say with them in a nice tidy case in an insectarium at the zoo, or pinned on walls as magnificently weird and wonderful specimens in their pretty shadowbox frames. But when it comes to having them looping through the air in apparently aimless cartwheels that I happen to know are really going to have them fly directly down my windpipe or into my defenseless eye-bulbs or up there to nest in my hair or to burrow into my carotid and have a suck-fest on my life’s-blood (have I read too many outlandish horror stories? You be the judge)–well, I’m just not that live-and-let-live and forgiving a character, am I.

So I am arming myself with all sorts of anti-insect remedies, or things that purport to be so, and while I’m attempting with a certain modicum of ecological sensitivity to limit them to entirely natural and inoffensive and not widely toxic treatments, I can’t make any promises when I happen to see the first wave of evil bugs zeroing in on me and mine. It’s a matter of the hunter and the hunted, kill or be bugged. My general pursuit of happiness may have to take a backseat to pursuit of feisty insect vermin. There may be a few small detonations of either disturbed craneflies rocketing out of the lawn as I stroll, or of me spraying them with some wicked-sounding oil-soap-hot-pepper-nuclear-weapon spray intended to mortify and murder them in turn. There will certainly be skirmishes of all sorts. We are at war, sirs and mesdames, and I am not going to sit back and be antennae-whipped into submission without a fierce fight. My fight instinct is slightly higher than the flight one at this moment, so be prepared for bloody messages from the front. Here’s hoping that the message of victory isn’t delivered from Bug-topia. That would just be too tragic. Run for your lives!

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Yikes! Head for the hills!