Thought I’d share some of the pictures I’ve been taking of things I’d like to paint.
Thought I’d share some of the pictures I’ve been taking of things I’d like to paint.
The verdict on my back is that surgery can wait for now. Basically, because I can walk around without excruciating pain searing down my legs (and I’ve been there) more surgery might do more harm than good. And the procedure would be a lot more complicated, with longer recovery time and more opportunity for infection, etc. Waiting is okay with me. At least now I know.
The doctor told me to stay active, but not to overdo anything. “Arthritis is a disease of motion,” after all, although stopping all motion is not the way to treat it, either. So I guess I’ll keep walking. My new pedometer measured my favorite route this morning at a little over two miles, and said I burned around 230 calories (that’s a Klondike bar!), so I see no reason to try and go farther. I may find a pool where I can swim a few laps a few times a week. I’m not a very efficient swimmer, and can probably burn up plenty of calories flailing from one end of the pool to the other.
But the trail at Park Hudson will be my primary workout. There are more trees, hence more shade, than the “Mile of History” walk at Veteran’s Park, which borders a bunch of soccer fields. And I can go earlier in the morning, since Veteran’s Park (which has gates) doesn’t open until 8:00 a.m. when it’s already getting pretty hot around here. Plus, more squirrels for Junior to try and chase.
As I walked into the arena, a pitched battle was taking place. Okay. Not exactly a battle. A struggle for domination. Well, not exactly that, either. Four mules were in an elimination round to determine the winner of the Coon Jumping class. Each time all four cleared a jump, the bar was raised another two inches. The bar was starting to get pretty high, and the mules were starting to get a little balky. Some might say “mulish.”
One mule, named White Lightning, was only 40 inches tall at the whithers (the point on the shoulder where the mane ends). Since he was over 36 inches, he was technically not a miniature mule, so he was competing against much taller individuals. And he was still in the running for first place. Four or five mules had already been eliminated and were standing around watching the battle/struggle/jump-off. I was glad I had arrived in time to see some of the action.
Coon Jumping is one of those activities mules and donkeys, but not so much horses, are uniquely qualified to perform. A little like fox-hunting, raccoon hunting in some areas is a mounted sport. Hunters ride mules, and when they come to a fence, they dismount, climb the fence, and then the mule follows them over. Mules can jump from a flat-footed standstill, and are able to clear impressive heights – when they feel like it. The world record jump (by an equine)of over eight feet was set by a US Army mule. But a mule won’t jump a fence it feels is too high. Its sense of self-preservation will root it to the spot.
As is natural with any sport, a spin-off sport was soon born. Contests to see whose mule could clear the tallest fence rose from the bragging sessions following the coon hunts. Then somebody had to make up some rules. And formal events like the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo began to include Coon Jumping classes in their Mule and Donkey Show every year.
The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is kind of a big deal in this part of Texas – and maybe all of Texas. It’s been a fixture as a late-winter event in Houston for the past eighty years. The only year it wasn’t held was 1937, after the facility it had been using was torn down and the new Sam Houston Coliseum was being built. Since 1966, the event has been held at its present location, first in the Astrodome, and later in a series of buildings funded by proceeds from ticket sales – the Astrohall, Astroarena, etc. Now the whole area is “Reliant Park.” Astrohall has been replaced by Reliant Center, and the Astroarena was re-named Reliant Arena. Whatever the name of the place, the livestock show/rodeo built the places to have enough room for their ever-expanding programs, and they’ve done a great job.
I was only there for part of the afternoon to see some of the mule and donkey classes – I didn’t go over to Reliant Center to see how much bigger and better it was from the old Astrohall I remember from ages ago – but I’m sure there will be other chances to go see events there.
To get back to the jumping class, I’ll just point out a few things in some of the photos I took. The boxed area behind the jump is all the room the mule is allowed to use to approach the barrier. Obviously, it’s not enough room to get a good running start. Most of the mules would stand with their chests nearly touching the bar before they would rock back onto their hind legs, fold their front legs under, and launch themselves over the fence. The rules say the mule can’t step outside the box, or it’s a “fault,” which, after two, eliminates the mule from the class. After the first fault, the mule gets a second try immediately. They also have a time limit. Over 90 seconds is a fault.
Those mules knew just exactly how long 90 seconds is, and some of them would draw out the drama and suspense by refusing to budge toward the jump until the last split second, and then would go over just as tidy as you could want. Drama queens. I kid you not. There was as much laughter, if not more, as applause and cheering from the audience. The mules were obviously playing to the crowd.
The miniature donkeys also had a coon jumping contest, which was equally hilarious.
Obviously, mules get their jumping technique from the donkey parent. Horses run and jump and keep running, while donkeys and mules can approach the barrier at a more leisurely pace. Why is that, do you wonder? I’m glad you asked. One of my Facebook friends related something one of her professors told the class about equine evolution, and I found the same explanation in a book titled The Natural Superiority of Mules, by John Hauer.
Horses evolved on the North American continent, and eventually migrated across the Bering land bridge into Asia, and later Europe and North Africa, before becoming extinct in their home ranges. The equine family tree was a bushy one for a long time, before being pruned down to the modern horse and its evolutionary offspring — the zebra clan and the asses. Ah, ha! So, donkeys and asses are actually younger than the horse, more evolutionarily advanced in some ways. In other ways, they have been shaped by the environments they occupied.
Horses evolved on the plains and grasslands with a variety of predators. They evolved to run away. Where they developed, running was always the best option. Think about it. Horses don’t have built in weapons, like bison, cattle, antelope, and all those other critters with horns and antlers. They just have escape velocity. Knowing when to run doesn’t take a lot of intellectual prowess – or a whole lot of sense. See a lion. Run. Hear a lion. Run. See a paper bag blow across the road. Ohmygod! Run and run and run! You get the idea.
Asses, on the other hand, evolved in more rugged terrain. A wild ass has to assess a threatening situation and decide whether to run or stand its ground, based on which is the safer choice. They had to learn to think, and think quickly. And they pass this ability to their hybrid offspring, the mule. When a mule is acting stubborn and hard headed, it’s much more likely that it has decided going through with whatever action its human companion wants it to do would be potentially harmful to itself. Duh.
To quote John Hauer: “People often ask me, ‘Why do you like mules?’ I say to them, ‘If you knew a man who would rarely start a fight, but was always capable of finishing one, who had very good judgment, high intelligence, a tremendous work ethic, but would never allow himself to be taken advantage of or overworked, what would your opinion of that person be?’” According to Hauer, that perfectly describes the character of a mule. Sounds like a good reason to like mules to me.
I, of course, think they are also cool looking, and like most other equines, make great subjects for drawing and painting. There will be mule portraits in the Crazybasenji gallery some day. In the meantime, look for the second part of this post, and a few more blurry photos from the show.
Source: The Natural Superiority of Mules Hauer, John 2005 Lyons Press, Guilford, CT
I live not-quite in a not-quite city, and it seems to suit me. All my life I’ve been not-quite sure who or what I wanted to be, so I have not-quite “arrived.” I was not-quite part of any group in school, and not-quite a great student – not-quite a rebel and not-quite an angel. Sometimes I feel like I’m not-quite even here. It’s a little like being almost a ghost – I sometimes feel like I can observe while unobserved, like the proverbial fly on the wall. But not-quite.
With people from all sides encouraging us all to “follow your passion,” and “do what you love,” I have not-quite been there or done that. And my problem seems to be that I’m not-quite sure which passion to follow – science or art, writing or painting, growing roses or building web sites. Let’s not forget reading. If I could kick back with a good book all day and make a living at it… heaven.
This past weekend I met someone you might call a guru of authentic living. Patti Digh is a writer/blogger that my friend, Tresha, has been following on line for some time. Tresha sent Patti some of her artwork, and one piece was published in one of Patti’s books – Four Word Self Help. Tresha gave me a copy of the book. Sunday, Patti Digh was going to be at a bookstore in Houston to chat and autograph her books, so Tresha asked me if I wanted to go.
Now Houston is not-quite on my list of favorite places to drive in my car on a warm day. My car is apparently going through menopause, and is prone to hot flashes – especially after I’ve been driving a while. So Tresha and I had to find a place where we could meet where I could leave my car – well away from the torture chamber that is the Houston freeway system. Did I mention that the air conditioner in my car doesn’t work? Yeah, that, too.
Anyway it’s a lot more fun to drive/ride into Houston with someone else, so we met in beautiful downtown Brenham, about an hour from where I live and two from Tresha’s home. And they have a handy public parking lot smack in the middle of the historic district – we sometimes meet there on a Saturday to eat lunch at “Must Be Heaven” and visit the funky little downtown shops.
But back to Patti Digh and why she’s in a piece about the “Land of Not-Quite.” I get the feeling she used to live here, too. Her 37 Days blog explains what happened in her life to cause her to want to leave the land of not-quite behind. She has since published books of collections of some of her blog entries along with contributions from some of her readers (like Tresha’s artwork). Her trip to Houston was part of a book tour for her latest book, What I Wish for You: Simple Wisdom for a Happy Life.
She greets everyone like an old friend, and so obviously is enjoying her life now, it’s hard not to wish for exactly the same thing. Except that nobody’s life is exactly like anybody else’s. None of us have exactly the same dreams or the same experiences in life that may have led us to live apart from those dreams. Let me tell you, not-quite achieving a dream is a hell of a place to be. Suppressing dreams to the point of losing all track of them is like some kind of psychic amputation, complete with phantom limb pain.
I’m struggling to reclaim my dreams, beginning with sorting through the dim storage areas in my mind to find which ones were the most precious and can still make me happy, and how I can rebuild the support structures to hold them up while I learn just how much I’m still capable of doing. For instance, the dream I shoved farthest back in the attic is a horse. I never got over my teenage crush on horses. I discovered that I’m not a natural-born rider, but I never got to spend enough time on horse-back to get good at it. On the other hand, I did get pretty good at falling off. The current condition of my back and various joints makes horse-back riding look like a bad idea.
And I’ve fallen in love with mules. They appeal to the basenji-lover in me. Mules are smarter than a lot of people give them credit for (as are basenjis), disinclined to follow orders that don’t make sense to them (ditto for basenjis), disinclined to let every little thing send them into a panic (as some horses are prone to do), and every bit as attractive. I could devote a whole blog to photos of mules and stories about them – if only I could get to the mules. When I went to the Texas Shootout last May, I felt like I’d found a little corner of heaven, but this year the event has been canceled due to the bad economy and high gas prices. I was planning to spend more than just the final day at the event, force myself to talk to more people, and hopefully get invited to a nearby farm to visit and take more pictures. Not going to happen.
I can’t travel far, especially in the warmer months, because of my menopausal car. It’s not as major a hardship for me as it could be for some people, because I’m quite happy to stay home and keep the Puppy company… and read. If I could make a living reading, that would be another dream come true. It might not be possible to get wealthy from it, but I’m working on learning to write great book reviews so that at least I may be able to get all my books free (and pre-publication) at some future date. I’ve already had several published at Story Circle Book Reviews. I don’t get paid, but I’ve already gotten a couple of free books.
For my third dream (and if I was talking to a magic genie, this would be my third wish), I would love to have a great big rose garden in my back yard. I have ideal conditions – a bald prairie where the roses could all get tons of direct sunlight and great air circulation. I would only grow roses that had won awards for fragrance, like Fragrant Cloud, Double Delight, Mister Lincoln, and that I could get enough blooms from to take some to sell at the weekly farmers market in Bryan. I would make little cards to go with the bouquets with the name and history of the rose, because I think that’s the best way to enjoy roses – knowing their personal histories.
So there it is. My recipe for a happy life. It may yet come about. I feel I may be moving from not-quite to almost.
One of my Chrysler Imperial bushes put on it’s first bloom a few days ago, and I got a few pictures while it was at it’s peak. Some of the petal edges show a little burning — it was probably in the bud during our last cold snap and got a little frost bit. Still it has that gorgeous blue-red I’ve always seen on Chrysler Imperials, and it smells as good as it looks.
Both of my rose bushes made it through last year’s extreme drought conditions with very little help from me. At times they were completely leafless, but every time it rained a little, they would put out new growth. Then they endured the winter with no extra protection from the elements. A lot of people think that roses are too fussy to bother with. I used to think that, myself. That was before I learned that roses had names, like “Don Juan,” “Madame Plantier,” “Dublin Bay,” “Fragrant Cloud,” and, of course, “Chrysler Imperial.” For some reason, plants with names like that all of a sudden seemed worth whatever effort it would take to be able to have them co-habitate with me in my yard.
Madame Plantier and Don Juan were two of the first roses I fell in love with, through some gardening cards I subscribed to for several years in Kentucky. Finding those two roses in a local gardening center was a different matter, and eventually led me to on line searching, and the Antique Rose Emporium (ARE). Although I was still living in Kentucky at the time, I was able to order a Madame Plantier rose to plant in my front yard. In a few years it grew into a big, spreading, wild-looking bush with attractive, small leaves, fewer than average thorns, and every spring would produce a huge crop of pinkish buds that opened into saucer-sized white flowers with a wonderful, old-fashioned fragrance. I miss her.
Since returning to central Texas, I’ve experimented with roses in containers. ARE has a list of some that are supposed to do well, but I suspect I didn’t have large enough containers, because after a couple of years they started dying. When I brought home the two Chrysler Imperials winter before last, I went out and got a couple of 32 gallon garbage cans, drilled a few holes in the bottoms, and planted them in those. Why don’t I just plant them in my yard, you ask? Because a few short inches below the surface it’s all concrete — heavy gray clay mixed with gravel of varying sizes. Hell to dig through, tends to repel water, which means the soil above it can stay soggy for weeks if we get a lot of rain. And one thing you learn about roses if you do any research at all is they need “well-drained” soil. They like a lot of water, but they hate wet feet.
The interesting thing about the roses ARE sells is that all their root stock were foundlings — cuttings gathered (or “rustled” — more on that later) from abandoned farmsteads and cemeteries, where they’d been thriving with no help from gardeners for years. And it seems that some time in the early eighties or thereabouts, some intrepid souls took to sneaking in to some of those places and snipping off bits of the plants, taking them home and growing them in their own gardens. The story of the Texas Rose Rustlers is colorful and entertaining, and unfortunately, they don’t tell it on their website any more. But their “Etiquette of the Rustle” page, and the “About” page at ARE contain some kernels of the story.
Now that it’s spring again, I’m thinking of expanding my garbage can garden, at least by one, so I can get another specimen of one of the first container roses I tried. She’s called Dame de Coeur, and is the most electric red and has the most knock-your-socks-off wonderful fragrance I’ve ever encountered. I love my Chrysler Imperials, and want another Mister Lincoln someday, too, but the “Queen of Hearts” is the next red on my list.
Ok, so maybe I’m getting just a liiitle carried away with the “spring” thing. Bear with me, though, this one is not completely off the screen. It’s another zoo story, actually. (I guess I need to add a “zoo story” tag.) Yessir, back when I was a’workin’ at that there Foat Wuth ZOOO, my buddy Jeanne took care of the springbok herd. She had about a dozen females and their assorted offspring, and one herd male. As the official zoo “nursery” keeper, I sometimes got to help care for a rejected baby springbok for its first few days. But Jeanne always wanted to get the little buggers back into the herd as quickly as possible, so she’d take over the bottle feedings and keep the baby in the barn at the exhibit after that.
So, what does one call a baby springbok? (Warning! Possible science content ahead.) If you look at the Wikipedia page, you’ll see the male springbok referred to as a ram, the female a ewe, so it would follow that the young would be a lamb, or maybe a kid. But farther down that same page, the young are called fawns. So, which are they, sheep or deer?
Actually, neither. Since their “containing group,” Antilopinae, is in the Family Bovidae, they are a little more closely related to sheep and goats than to deer (Family Cervidae). And you can see the relationship if you consider that both male and female springbok have permanent horns, like cattle. Not branching antlers that fall off, like deer, or horns only on the males or radically different on the males, like a lot of sheep and goats. Which is probably why Jeanne always called the babies calves. I usually just called them “Shorty.”
There’s a color that shows up every spring — the first green the trees put on — that I just love. I glows. It lights up the countryside. Otherwise drab roadsides come alive and fairly shout with green. They almost don’t need sunlight to glow, but seem lit from within — these first leaves of spring. But on a bright day they can be almost blinding.
Later in the season as the sunlight gets stronger and hotter, leaves add thicker layers of waxy cuticle to hold in the moisture. The green turns darker and more business-like. The leaves get to work turning those light waves into plant food and oxygen, and put away the party colors until next year.
I often wonder if the paler, more tender spring leaves are better able to absorb the less intense early spring light. But not being a plant biologist, or intensely curious enough to try and find an answer, I content myself with thinking how lovely that an adaptation that helps the plant also delights the eye.
Well, they didn’t specify whose home to take a picture of, so I chose one of my backyard Purple Martin condo. One of the not-so-many good things about living on a semi-bald prairie.
I have high hopes they’ll do the same this year. Early last week a couple of males, accompanied by one female, did a couple of fly-bys, and landed on the roof a couple of times. Now if I can just keep the starlings from chasing them off. It might be time to get a starling-eradication device.
As I stated in my previous post, I recently had a chance to read a review copy of an upcoming science book. It is due for release this Friday, and you can order a copy now from several book sellers. I highly recommend getting a copy and reading it, if you have an interest in paleontology, evolution, or the history of science. Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature, by Brian Switek, has all those things and more.
The book begins with a recent news story – recent paleontology news, that is. A fossil was described that “could be” the elusive, and conclusive, missing link in the human family ancestral chain. In fact, the find, and the fossil, were rather shamelessly promoted, hyped, and hinted about, all the while being kept from the eyes of the scientific community – all but the team of scientists who had prepared and described the fossil, at any rate. “Ida,” as the fossil was informally named, was a beautifully preserved specimen of a small, female, primate some 47 million years old. As this story unfolds, it illustrates several themes that weave through the rest of the book. One is that scientists are all looking for answers to big questions. It’s why they are scientists. They are driven to search for the truth, even if and when it goes against their previous assumptions about how the world works. But scientists are also human. The tendency to interpret findings to fit those previous assumptions is sometimes too much of a temptation to overcome, whether they are conscious of doing it or not. And there have always been scientists who make no pretense about using the data to support any view of life other than one about which they have already made up their minds.
In the case of this book, the answers are truly some of the biggest in the natural sciences: Where did we come from? Who are our ancestors and what did they look like? What can fossils tell us about the ancestors of other creatures with whom we share the present-day earth? And the real nail-biter in my mind – are birds really dinosaurs? There is also the question of whether or not the progression of life-forms through the fossil record shows a progression in another sense, that of evolution from “lower” forms, like simple invertebrates, to “higher” forms, like us. And although evidence reveals that even “simple” invertebrates are quite highly evolved and adapted for their role in nature, there will always be those who want a way to justify placing the human race at the top of some pinnacle of evolutionary achievement.
Switek tells the human stories along with the scientific throughout the book. He digs into the history of the science and finds the personalities that go along with the names. Most students of evolutionary biology are familiar with Charles Darwin, and know something about his life. But Thomas Henry Huxley, Richard Owen, Othaniel C. Marsh, Georges Cuvier, and others are just names, or, at best, shadowy figures at the edge of the stage. Switek has given them substance. He details the conflicts some had with each other, as well as some of the outstanding collaborations.
Each chapter is a separate case study in the history of evolutionary paleontology, using the keystone examples that most of us are familiar with from some course or other in biology. The story of the Archaeopteryx fossils and the debates over the evolution of birds from dinosaurs and whether birds started to fly from the ground up or the trees down is a good example. The feathered fossils, one of which was on exhibit recently at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, are billed as “icons of evolution.” That presence of feathers has now been confirmed on a number of dinosaur fossils has added weight to the placement of birds in a much closer relationship to dinosaurs than would have been considered when the Archaeopteryx fossils were first discovered.
Another “icon of evolution” for many of us has always been the story of evolution of the horse, from the tiny Eohippus – or “Dawn Horse” (now classified under an older name – Hyracotherium), to our present-day horses, zebras, and their relatives. Presentation of the evolution of horses as a steady march from one form to another – from the small, many-toed forms, to the large, modern ones with their single toes – has consistently misrepresented the true story of the ancestry of modern horses. Some of the forms that are shown in a line leading from smaller to larger, actually co-existed at some point in the past and are not closely related. A more accurate portrait of the horse family is of a bush, with many of the branches containing the smaller forms dying out along the way.
Also included in the book is the chapter describing the search for the true evolutionary path of whales, which have been shown through recent molecular studies to be more closely related to hippos than to groups previously proposed as their ancestors. This points out another theme important to Switek, that the field of paleontology has something to contribute to other disciplines in evolutionary science, as well as being able to be enriched by knowledge from those other disciplines.
For anyone with a keen amateur interest in paleontology, this book has everything one could hope for in a single basic reference. There is history, drama, and all the major players – the fossils themselves – telling the stories that are much larger, and much more interesting, than merely a tale of “missing links.”
Turns out the martins haven’t actually left the area, they just moved out of the house. On reflection, it seemed like a bad time to migrate south — it’s still winter on the other side of the equator. Plainly, I don’t know as much about purple martin migratory habits as some people. I seem to remember my mom saying that they arrive in this area around Valentine’s Day, and leave again on June 15th. That’s pretty specific. But she must have meant that they leave the nest on June 15th. Or thereabouts. We didn’t get the house up until late February, and I didn’t see any martins around it until mid-March. Both families of martins were still using the nest a lot on June 15th. But now I see one group of four (mom, dad, two kids) fly over the house once in a while and never land on it. They hang out on the telephone wires out by the road. I’m sure there’s still plenty of good grasshopper hunting in the area. It just goes to show, you should never stop observing, and you’ll probably never be through learning.