Free range chicken

As the light crept into the sky this morning, I saw a queer sight.  What appeared to be a chicken strutting along the garden fence.  Now, you might dismiss my thoughts as mere indulgence-of-a-young-child’s-imagination, but real chickens do live in my backyard and this particular chicken statue looks quite chicken-like in the pre-dawn half light.

After my brain adjusted to what I actually saw, I remembered a quick comment from the young child the night before: “I forgot to lock up Peg” [‘Lock up’ definition – return to the chicken coop and shut the coop to protect from night time predators].

Everything clicked into place for me once I saw Peggy strutting around the backyard.

All of the chicken statues and stuffed animals that reside in or around my house are called Peg, short for Peggy.  Not because of any wooden legs, but rather from the fun story “Peggy: A Brave Chicken on a Big Adventure” by Anna Walker.  It’s a quick read about a chicken’s adventure in a city, having been blown there by a storm.  For a child with backyard chickens, this story set the imagination alight.

A Spider and a Rabbit

<Spoiler Alert – I include the last paragraph of Charlotte’s Web in italics below.>

My daughter now enjoys chapter books.  She thoroughly enjoyed a children’s version of Wind in the Willows (we skipped the guns and clubs, but she knows weasels and stoats are nasty).  After reading Wind in the Willows no less than twenty times, we decided to stop the broken record and read Charlotte’s Web, unsure if she would understand the ending.  I remember the story from my childhood as we drove to New England, listening to E.B. White reading his own work.  Rereading parts of the book as an adult, I now see (but don’t entirely comprehend) White’s mastery of the craft.

The book is great (if you haven’t read it, you must – but be warned, it’s a bittersweet tear-jerker).  The last paragraph reads:

“Wilbur never forgot Charlotte. Although he loved her children and grandchildren dearly, none of the new spiders ever quite took her place in his heart. She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”


I wasn’t in the room when my wife read the final paragraph to my daughter but I’m told the room was completely silent.  My wife looked at my daughter, who was staring straight ahead, and asked “Did you like the book?”  My daughter turned, made her hands into two little claws, put on her nastiest scary wolf face, growled, then promptly burst into tears while asking “Why did Charlotte have to die?”

Maybe she didn’t get it all; but she got it.  We couldn’t talk about Charlotte for a few weeks after that reading.

We still haven’t reread that book.

At the beginning of Charlotte’s Web, Fern, explains to her father that it’s not fair the runt of the litter is to be put down rather than raised.  Ever since Fern discussing fairness on the farm, we have been hearing about fairness in our home (or rather unfairness).  However, the concept of fairness is not quite yet understood.  A typical conversation:

“It’s unfair the coffee is hot.”
“Oh, did you want hot coffee?”
“No, I don’t like coffee.”
“Do you want hot tea?”
“No, I like the warm water I have.”
“What’s not fair then?”
“That the coffee is hot.”

Which brings me to today.  Just as I was about to pull into my driveway from morning errands, I noticed two tall rounded ears sticking up from the asphalt in front of my neighbor’s house.  Not only were the ears sticking up, but the head seemed upright and alert.  I continued past my driveway to investigate.  As I neared the rabbit, it became quite clear the animal had been hit by a car.  As a result of the accident, the rabbit had been skinned from the shoulders to the tail.

I decided to move the dead animal from the road.

We used to have a free-range rabbit named Maizie.  Maizie moved freely around the first floor of our house.  He enjoyed laying next to our dog water bowl and laid in such a way as to have the effect of one catching some rays on a hot summer day, feet kicked out to the side, leaning slightly on one elbow, just watching the world pass.  “Hey Cabana Boy, drop a carrot this way.  Thanks!”

The rabbit in the middle of the road was laying there in a similar fashion.  I thought: Man, that’s a really wacky way to land after being hit.  That’s when the rabbit turned it’s head to watch my van roll past.


This wasn’t fair.

I threw a uey, parked in my driveway and went to get a box and pair of gloves to take the rabbit to the local emergency vet to be put down.  I entered my house and rather than greet everyone, I simply said “I need a box.  A rabbit has been hit in the road and is still alive.  I’m taking it to the emergency vet.”  My wife understood why I was taking the rabbit to the vet, but my daughter only knows that animals go to the vet to get better.

My daughter asked that I repeat myself.  Gruffly, I told her to go back inside.  She lingered in the doorway with a hurt look on her face.  I apologized and explained more slowly why I needed the box – but I used mostly the same words.

After I left, my wife explained how it isn’t fair that an animal would needlessly suffer if we have the ability to end it’s suffering.

“And then dad will bring it back from the vet?”
“No, the rabbit will get a shot and will be dead, but it will stop the hurting.”
“I thought animals went to the vet to get better.”

Frog and Toad

Growing up, I remember my mom’s tales of spring time in New Hampshire – roads slick with the smashed bodies of spring peepers; drivers navigating turns as if black ice covered the road.  For some reason, these tales made me want to hear and see spring peepers.  These tales also instilled a love of all cold blooded animals (the ones with four legs at least).

In third grade, I found a male box turtle that I named Boxer.  Not knowing how to care for box turtles, I decided the best plan of action was to call the Philadelphia Zoo and ask their reptile experts.  The zoo’s employees were quite helpful and for the next four years I kept three box turtles: Boxer, Shelly and Mr. Dinosaur.

The turtles hibernated in the leaf pits, swam in a foil tray of water and ate bugs and ground beef.  Eventually they escaped their enclosures to return to the woods directly behind my house.  At about this time in my life, I began noticing the opposite sex and my interest in cold blooded companions waned but never disappeared.

Never did I want to risk the life of a delicate creature such as a frog, toad or tadpole until my wedding day.  I was mowing my parent’s lawn in the morning and I found a three legged toad.  Unsure what accident befell this small fellow, I decided an appropriate name was Moe.  He lived with my wife and I in a terrarium for six years.

Polywog - Stone Valley

As an adult, I feel I now spend more time in the woods than I did as a child.  Weekly my daughter and I go to the farmer’s market and then on a woodland expedition/adventure (expedition if it’s raining, adventure if sunny).  We venture many places around our town: Bear Meadows, Little Flat Top Mountain, and The Kombucha Water Place (the spring on Three Bridges Trail) to name a few.  One day in April, she and I ventured to Bear Meadows.

Bear Meadows is a fen wetland surrounded by mountains.  I enjoy hiking and trail running around the wetland.  Low- and high-bush blueberries grow along the trail and through the fen.  The rocky trail stays wet for long periods of time resulting in some pretty epic muddy spots.  The most beautiful view in all of Pennsylvania is standing on the bridge at Bear Meadows facing the fen while the sun is setting over Little Flat Top mountain.

On this particular April day, the noise from the spring peepers was physically-hurting-your-ears loud.  The video above does not do justice to the cacophony.  As we walked by the vernal pond, the peepers closest to us would quiet until we passed.


Two weeks later, we were again on an adventure, only this time to the large pond in the Scotia Game Lands.  She and I have seen a family of geese, heard woodcocks, and caught salamanders at this pond.  However, on this day, our normal salamander spot had been taken over by hundreds of tadpoles.

Seeing or hearing frogs and toads always makes me smile, bringing me back to my childhood and reading all the Frog and Toad stories.  For some reason, the image of Toad covered in melting ice cream with two horns of waffle cone is etched in my memory.  My daughter now enjoys the stories, not yet reading them to herself but pointing out the letters she knows – P, W, O, M, T, S.

Reading these stories to my daughter allows me to relive my childhood, only to rediscover how special my childhood really was.

Tailypo’s short tale (tail?)

A favorite story of mine growing up was “Tailypo” by the Galdones.  As an eight year old, I remember a primordial fear of the Tailypo.  My daughter loves the story as well, even though she’s not even four.  In the world of Circleville, a few tailypos are known to make an appearance; all are bad, but the biggest and nastiest is Rothrock (who also happens to own a coffee shop).

Thinking about the telling of “Tailypo”, I stumbled across this spectacular stop-motion film.  It’s worth the seven minutes of your time.


A Scarlet Tanager Run

Scarlet Tanager is the middle photo.

I awoke before my alarm.  The sun had yet to color the eastern sky over Mt. Nittany.  In the predawn dark, one bird began a solo.  A second joined in a duet a minute later.  Within fifteen minutes, as the sun began to color the sky orange a multitude of birds joined the chorus, transforming the quiet night, drawing me out of my slumber.

My alarm broke the bird’s cadence, jolting me out of bed.  I rose and caught sight of the sunrise.  My pre-caffeine brain could only muster an “oh wow” and a quick moment of thanks for the beautiful morning.

The demands of the morning drew me downstairs to start the coffee and begin work for the day.  I planned to run in the early morning coolness but my wife and daughter woke earlier than I anticipated, possibly pulled out of bed by the same bird chorus I had enjoyed.  My wife announced her intention to run (after a dozen years of marriage my dad’s wedding day advice still holds true: When in doubt, say “Yes Dear”).  My run postponed, I completed my morning work while juggling a toddler’s demands for her dad’s attention.

Forty-five minutes later, it was my turn for a run.  Late spring humid-morning air, the kind of air that you know brings with it the first of the summer season’s scorchers, replaced the cooler nighttime temperatures.  I laced up my shoes, stepped out into the humid morning, told myself the warm temperature would not affect my run and pushed off the curb.

I spotted a flicker within the first mile.  The white spot on his back a dead giveaway as he flew.

Entering the woods, the humidity and temperature increased.  If the day had been hotter and birds more exotic, I could have imagined I was running on the island of St. John in the US Virgin Islands, passing Banana Quits and hermit crabs.

After two miles of trail running, focusing on my feet to ensure I don’t twist an ankle, I happened to glance up and spot a brilliant red bird with black wings flying through some of the mature oaks.  “Scarlet Tanager” popped into my head followed by the question “why?”  “Mr. Straight” was the answer.

George Straight, ninth grade biology teacher.  As a fifteen year old, I always thought Mr. Straight embodied high school teachers of the 1960’s.  He always wore pleated khakis and a short-sleeved dress shirt.  His shirt was always white.  I don’t recall if he wore a tie, but would have a hard time believing he didn’t.  Mr. Straight taught biology as if he were a college professor.  Gruff and exacting, he required his students to learn how to identify trees, flowers, birds and a fourth organism which I fail to recall.  Each quarter, Mr. Straight would test us on our abilities to name the different species.  On test day, the biology class room would be darkened, a slide projector set up at the back of the classroom and at our seats, half sheets of paper for our answers.

Mild terror energized me during the first identification test.  The trees I think.  Mr. Straight sat in the back of the classroom at the slide projector.  “Number one” he called.  Thirty seconds passed and I heard the click-click of the advancing slides and a new tree to identify would be shown on the projector screen; from the back of the classroom: “Number two”.  By far, the trickiest plant to identify was the tulip.  The photo to identify was taken from directly above the flower.  Only the shadow showed a hint of tulip-ness.

Photo Credit:
Photo Credit:

By the time I needed to identify birds, I had learned how to study for the tests.  Audubon identification guides had been purchased and weekly I would try to memorize new species.  The day of the bird test, I woke early to brush up on my species.  I looked outside and a flock of birds was eating the remaining winter-wrinkled crab apples.  I knew the birds were cedar waxwings.  I felt ready for the test.

Photo Credit:
Photo Credit:

I completed my run, smiling, remembering Mr. Straight and ninth grade biology.  When I returned home, I asked my daughter for the bird field guide (one of her favorite books) and she and I identified the scarlet tanager.  I had been right!  Mr. Straight would be proud.

Audubon Birds East

We received a set of identification books as a wedding gift from my grandmother.  The books are spectacular and I thoroughly enjoy learning the different species (again) alongside my daughter.  While not a ‘reading’ book, the guides are awesome and it never ceases to amaze me how much my daughter learns (and she is rarely wrong).

An Icy Day

Daily, I ride my bike to and from school.  The three and a half mile ride takes me through farm fields being converted to housing developments, along a golf course and through campus to North Commons, across from the Business Building.  I change from my riding clothing to my classroom clothing and then finish the ride by crossing the street and locking my bike in front of the Business Building.

During my ride my mind flits from thought to thought in some semi-logical way.  The random thoughts remind me of the flight of a honeybee during the summer – flying from clover to clover in a thoughtfully erratic pattern, pausing long enough to drink the sweet liquid sunshine hidden deep in each bloom.

Most times I can not recall my ride; just that I arrived at school ready for class, satisfied with twenty five minutes of quiet contemplation.  However, one ride on a cold December morning remains etched in my memory.

In mid-November, we borrowed a copy of Snowflake Bentley from our local library, Schlow Library.  My daughter binge reads new books and Snowflake Bentley proved an arresting read.  The book describes Wilson Bentley’s life and his quest to photograph snowflakes.  The author, Jacqueline Martin, and illustrator, Mary Azarian, described Bentley’s life and drive to photograph snowflakes that I gained a deeper appreciation for the art of snowflake photography.

For three days in early December, spectacular frost covered the earth.  Snowflake Bentley caused me to be more aware of this special frost.  Each morning the frost was somehow grander than the last.

On the last day of the magnificent frosts, I cruised downhill through a thicket adjacent to a new housing development under a brilliant sun and robin’s egg blue sky.  The path through the thicket ends with a hard left hand turn at a farmer’s field before continuing uphill along the field.  The most amazing sight awaited me as I exited the thicket.

Frost as thick as feathers covered the flora on the embankment opposite the bike path.  The frosty embankment looked like a wave frozen mid-crash.  The sun glinted through the frost.  Individual plants hid behind the wispy brush strokes of ice.  The sun melted the outline of the farmer’s fence into exposed frost.

After passing the farmer’s field, most of the frost had melted under the intense rays of the sun.

As I biked through Hort Woods on my way to North Commons, minuscule shooting stars appeared.  Confused, I paused to observe the clear sky – not a snow cloud in sight.  Then I noticed the sun-warmed tree tops.  As the sun warmed the trees, the frost crystals began to melt and fall to the ground.  The reflection of the sun off of each crystal gave the illusion of children’s sparklers on a mid-summer’s night.

I ended my ride, as I always do, at North Commons to change my clothes.  As I changed, I thought of Snowflake Bentley and how much he would have appreciated the ice show.


Try #2 (really, it’s still book #1): The Bunny Rabbit Show! by Sandra Boynton

In my first attempt to provide some mental fertilizer for you, I started to write a description of Wendell Berry’s “The Unsettling of America”.  The book is excellent, but my write up got stuck in the mental version of quicksand.  Wendell Berry will wait for another day.

Today, I’ve got the board-book “The Bunny Rabbit Show!” by Sandra Boynton.  Awesome book for little kids, the mental equivalent of a pumpkin whoopee pie for adults.  Boynton has been writing kid’s books since the mid 1970’s, and she has written prolifically.

Boynton writes about hippos, bunnies, cows, barnyards, dogs, pajamas and even singing pigs; this specific book is about…dancing and singing bunny rabbits.  The sing-song writing style makes the book enjoyable for child and parent each time its read.  The book practically asks to be sung.  At times, my daughter will almost dance along as I read the book aloud.

“The Bunny Rabbit Show!” is one of my favorites because I get to act like a kid again.  Belting out atonal tunes with my semi-nasaly voice elicits the occasional growl from the dogs and peals of laughter from my daughter (probably eye rolls from my wife).  At first I was embarrassed to sing a book to my daughter and really only read in a stilted manner.  After reading a few books, I understood that my daughter doesn’t care (or know) if I’m a good singer, she just enjoys the time we spend reading/singing.  In addition, if I have fun reading, my daughter has fun listening and learns that dad is a fun guy.

Beyond just singing the book to my daughter, I have enjoyed watching as she now discerns aspects of the book she couldn’t in the past.  For instance, when she was 18mos, she just enjoyed the tuneless tune that I sung, but now, at two and a half, she picks out the ‘bunny rabbits’ that aren’t (chicken, duck, and pig).

The cacophony produced by reading this book causes only the most properly trained singers to cringe.