WHITE BIRD CHRONICLES
~ Stories about leaving the city, and living in a little country town ~
After we moved to Idaho, I posted some letters on my old website. They were just pictures and notes about what was happening in our new place, meant for family and friends in Portland. After I stopped posting them, I received emails from people I didn’t even know, asking me to get with it. Where was the next letter from White Bird? I had quit because we would soon run out of our “moving-transition” money and would need to replenish it. I copped out on the website postings—no hint of income there—but I began “publishing” a little local rag, expanded from the letters and with similar content. So I peddled ads for a quarterly White Bird Chronicles. I once calculated that I had made around $2 per hour working on the Chronicles, an amount so irresistible that I put out 15 issues before I got too busy working on our new house. If you are a glutton for punishment, check out my Letters from White Bird.
White Bird is the namesake of a Nez Perce chief. The W.B. at left (snowy owl) posed for me one winter day out of Bellingham WA, but I've seen one since out of Grangeville ID, and before that near Missoula MT.
Below, you will find some selected short articles from my White Bird Chronicles. And, if you want to learn how Jane and I really got here, you might try another literary masterpiece, Leaving the City.
It doesn’t have to be dialect, it can just be the names for things. What I (properly, of course) call Douglas fir and larch are red fir and tamarack around here. People can take tough stands on such issues. It doesn’t matter how many books agree with you, clinging stubbornly to alien words can stamp outsider all over you. Doumecq Road is Doo'-mack if you want to sound local here. On leaving a place, you take with you some of the odd-when-you-arrived language. While I don’t call a creek a “branch”—it’s a “crick”—or a small valley a “holler”, I still find “y’all” to be a handy collective. One of my daughters, who matured elsewhere but has lived in Austin for years, sounds comfortably Texan on the phone and when she first arrives for a visit.
Aside from minor language adjustments, coming to White Bird has presented certain challenges to fitting-in. The first was getting my brain on White Bird time; that is, relaxing my schedule a little. I got that one okay. It helped to not replace my watch when it died. I just hope the real test of conforming to local standards is not another time-related issue: like getting up at 5 AM. No damn way! I do my best work in the morning but that’s still night. My sleep-logged brain says morning starts at 6:30, end of conversation. When local operators call at 5 or 6 AM, I just try to sound awake. And bedding down at 9 PM? I don’t think so. My eyes slam shut at 11, after a book or a TV program. Can I ever conform to these local sleep/activity patterns? Not a chance. Can I become truly accepted in the community while keeping outsider hours? The jury is still out and, truth be told, I may never find out. Who would tell me? ♦
**Riggins, 30 miles south of us, had a nice gift shop with just such a back room. ♦
I am aware of the many rewards that come of being grateful, and I am. It’s just that I keep giving thanks for the same old things. You know—family, friends, health, being here in White Bird, the great weather, so many wonderful photo ops and so on. But I keep thinking my gratitude targets are too easy. Does taking the simple path deserve reward? Gain without pain? Perhaps I should dig deeper into myself and project my thankfulness onto less deserving features of my life. Not like enemies or anything—I’m not a saint—just some of the marginal candidates.
So I burrow down in there. It's a scary place but I find a worthy challenge. Past the gritty effort, I am now able to feel gratitude for Gus, Jane’s scruffy border terrier who, in a strong head wind, can look like he’s doing 40 mph standing still. I’m thankful for Gus because I know it could have been worse. Hell, it was worse. The last dog Jane owned was a basset hound named Abbot—not for Costello’s partner, although it was hard to take him seriously, but for Abbotsford, BC, where Jane got him.
Basset hounds have acres of skin which, when set in motion, can project more than ground-hugging cuteness. We would take evening walks with Abbot aleash. After a few blocks he’d get a little heated and start to drool—that frothy basset drool. When enough goobers had accumulated he’d stop, plant his legs and shake. Understand, this was no ordinary dog shake. Richter measured it, and I swear Abbot controlled it. Those usually ponderous but now violently flinging jowls would direct every airborne pound of that stuff within a cone of dispersion so tight that he could accurately slime me from 25 feet. And he smelled bad, to boot!
Consequently, Gus is an odd kind of reward, and I’m grateful—even if he does hump my Siamese cat, Dave. Jane gets a little animated when this happens, especially if we have company, but I try to take a live-and-let-live approach: if it doesn’t bother the humpee, who am I to judge. But Gus (AKA dis-Gus-ting) has favorable attributes too. At our house Jane cooks and I do the dishes. Our division of labor has spawned another handle for the Carlson cur, "Pre-wash", for making my part easier. Thank you, Gus.
Cursed with scruff, Gus gets through life on raw energy and expressive eyes. I’ve seen him move things with them. Tenaciously focused, THE STARE can open the door to the cookie cupboard or levitate morsels unerringly from any plate directly to his mouth. Dave, on the other hand, makes it through on good looks, although this sometimes backfires on him when Gus is around.
Truly, my cup runneth over. ♦
The whole house reeked by now. My eyes ached, my nose burned, my head hurt. I thought I would be sick. My body, which had been demanding sleep, now caved in to a higher insistence that I do something about the terrible smell. And do it now!
Desperate times called for desperate measures. All I could think of was tomato juice, the odor-busting powers of which were in question. I didn’t give it much hope but had no better option right then. I dropped Gus into the laundry sink and, finding no tomato juice in the pantry, opened a tin of tomatoes. I squeezed them and rubbed the juice and mooshed pieces into his coat, then washed him with one of Jane’s smelly bubble baths. He immediately and violently shook fragrant, soapy tomato mush all over the walls above the sink. Now he not only smelled of skunk, but of other stuff too. My efforts had definitely made things worse and you-know-who was coming home the next day. Killing the dog would not save me.
I knew I’d have to put Gus outside all night to keep him off the couch, and the damage had already been done anyway, so I spread towels and let him go for it. With cougars and coyotes and owls, oh my, outside was not an option—at least if I wanted to stay married. The heavy stench hadn’t permeated an upstairs bedroom so I slept there.
In the morning I threw the animals out, opened the rest of the windows and ate my breakfast on the porch. I was trying to come up with a way to re-inhabit our new house without burning it down and starting over.
I remembered that a friend had mentioned some skunk remedy that was supposed to work (like tomato juice was supposed to work?). I had nothing to lose so I called him, got the formula and headed down the hill for the peroxide part of it. My haste must have precipitated a senior moment—or a stupid human trick—because I let Gus come along. I realized my mistake when he rubbed across my face trying to climb over my lap to hang his head out the window. He didn’t seem to understand the rough treatment that followed.
No peroxide at the General Store. I’d have to go to Grangeville. Maybe that was OK—you-know-who shouldn’t be home until around eight o’clock. I decided to pick up the mail first, and in that moment my luck changed.
Nancy of the post office was outside washing her dog. I said, “Hi. Dirty dog?” She said, “Nope, got into a skunk.” I said, “Really.” Nancy was using the same formula for which I sought an ingredient. Not only that, she had purchased extra, in case it ever happened again. She would let me have some if I’d replace it. And now Lady Luck really beamed: This woman of mercy also had some stuff that would de-stink the couch.
Up the hill I went, thinking I should be in Reno. But you never know how long a streak is going to last. After seven miles I came around the final turn and saw that damned Subaru in our driveway. You-know-who was home early and I feared my ass was grass. I was SOOOO busted.
I should have had more faith in my mate’s tolerance. While I did have to suffer the can’t-I-leave-you-guys-alone-even-one- night tirade, all was well that ended well. Both remedies were amazingly effective and Jane was so glad to see (G)us that she forgave us our trespasses into smelly territory. We didn’t have to burn the house, I didn’t have to kill the dog and we’re prepared for the next skunk episode, of which I am certain there will be more. Throughout my misery Gus appeared unimpressed by the sickening stench. Could he have liked it? Could he have strayed in an unfaithful manner from Dave, only to strike up a meaningful relationship with a skunk? Let’s not go there. ♦
The Little Brown Church in the Vale
Chicken Rancher Blues
We got into the chicken business in a fairly classic way. On a trip to the local farm store, our visiting granddaughter came along. Unfortunately, the basic rule was in effect: Granddaughters you don’t see very often pretty much get what they want when you do see them. I knew it was coming when I saw Jordan kneeling at that seasonal chick cage full of peeping down balls. All she said was, “Oh, aren’t they cute” and, as sure as the Salmon heads for the Snake, we left with a box of trouble.
In spite of my eye rolls, I built the incubator, then the growing pen, which of course resided in the living room. I tried to ignore the peepers but the cat and dog showed some interest—pretty intense interest, actually. The chicks got lucky and matured, then graduated to the garage sale chicken house in the yard, where two roosters competed for my attention each dawn, further endearing them to me. when I began to hear chicken names spoken, I knew I’d been had.
By then the granddaughter was long gone and I tried to stand my ground. My position was, “I know chickens. My grandmother had a chicken ranch and I spent many an hour buffing the stuff off eggs. If you think I’m going to take care of chickens now, you’re full of stuff.” I have no idea by what insidious process I came to haul straw, purchase scratch, collect eggs and do the nightly closing up thing when you know who was gone. It slipped up on me like a virus.
I’ve always been of the mind that feeding wild animals is good for neither them nor us. I was apparently alone in this because the turkeys and quail showed up immediately when Jane started throwing scratch out on our gravel approach. I thought, Oh boy, this will be fun to watch, but the dog, cats and chickens just ignored them—except for Henrietta, our little banty, who was a bit of an outcast in her own tribe. She took right up with the turkeys. Size didn’t matter to her, she bossed them around anyway. Soon the driveway and lawn were pretty well greased up and I was getting hot. I’m not sure if it was my threat to break out the .22, or the call of the wild, but the turkeys finally disappeared.
Oh no, it didn’t stop there. Gus, Jane’s border terrier, acquired a taste for chicken—at least a taste for killing them. So now we’re down by two and I’m trying to keep from cheering. I did my part, though, and had a talk with him: “You stupid mutt, do you know what people around here do to egg sucking dogs and chicken killers?” That worked. The next day I caught him with another bird in his mouth. Someone told Jane about tying the carcass around his neck but she had already thrown it into the dumpster. I really wanted to be there with my camera when she fished it out. So Gus wandered around befowled for a day or two. I knew this one was working when he got into a tight place, turned around, grabbed the dead chicken in his mouth and walked right on through. He soon spotted a feral cat down in the woods. Over the bank he went with the now-sparsely feathered appendage flying behind him. I figured I’d have to go down there to disentangle him from some poison ivy brush, but he came back a little later, somewhat lightened of load, now trailing only the head and beak.
Things were fairly serene around our house for few days; that is, until Jane forgot one night to close the door to the chicken house—the very night a wandering varmint lucked out. We never did find out what it was, but the three chickens that escaped during the massacre remained so terrified they would not go back into the house, even for food. They took up roosting under the hood of my white pickup. And they stayed so jumpy they would run from anything. It was just the trigger to bring out the terrier in Gus. He struck again and we were down to two, Henrietta and Rocky. Be still my heart.
The next day Jane caught me headed out for the Post Office. “Be sure to make plenty of noise when you start the truck. I don’t want to lose the last of my chickens.” I mailed my package and, as I backed away from the Post Office, she drove up in the car.
“Are you sure you got those chickens out?” “Sure, I honked the horn several times and beat on the dash. Why?” “They’re missing. Will you check?” “OK.”
I lifted the hood and there they were, one atop the engine and one down on the axle. (It is 2½ miles from our house to the P.O.) I captured Rocky and threw him into the cab. Henrietta flew out and behind the Post Office, around which Jane and I chased her a few times, finally cornering her against a back fence. “Now we’ve got you, you #@!!**# chicken!” She easily flew over the fence into Keith Ray’s yard. As we chased her around in there, his honor the mayor came out from his bath to see what the ruckus was all about. Good for us he had a sense of humor. When Henrietta flew into the next yard we gave up, figuring that neighbor had just inherited a tourist chicken.
Two days later, Bob Blair called, our friend from across the Salmon River. He said, “You guys have chickens don’t you? Do you want another one?” Slapping my forehead, I answered resignedly, “Well, I suppose Jane does.” So Bob brought it over in a box. When he pulled out the bird, Jane yelled, “That’s Henrietta!” The day before, Bob’s wife Ruth had visited the Library (next to the Post Office, of course), where Henrietta had either found a familiar roost in the Blair’s white pickup, or just felt like traveling again.
I guess I’m a fatalist. I figure what happens now to Henrietta and Rocky will happen. My concern is that someone will start thinking about how just the two of them look so lonely.
A wise person said it right: If chickens knew what was in store for them they would stay in the egg. And if I knew what was good for me I’d keep my mouth shut. ♦
A Rat by Any Other Name...
Recently a pack rat invaded our car for a whole week, chewing away, building winter nests and driving me crazy. Twice he rode to Grangeville with us. At night in the garage he’d come out and peel paper off the sheetrock in the garage. I worried about him chewing electrical wires. Nothing I tried would get him out of the car. Neither did any of Gus’ noisy efforts or the cats’ stalking about on the engine. Jane honked the horn a lot. Fearing the rat would run across her feet, she drove with the interior lights on to get to her school bus for the morning run.
I began my attack with the old water treatment. Hosing down the car engine compartment, I actually drove Packy out into view. I then got stupid and trained the stream on the rat. That just drove it back into its Subaru hidey hole. The big snap trap I set on the engine that night didn’t produce a whisker.
With Jane driving to Portland the next morning, the pressure was on. Twice she had opened the hood and come face to face with that rodent. I wasn’t there to hear the screams and/or epithets—probably just as well. She announced that if I thought she was driving a thousand miles with a #!*@ rat in her car...well, you know. I actually sympathized with her. Notification also came down that if I didn't get that bloody rat out of her car she'd either drive the truck or rent a car somewhere. I didn't sympathize with that position, the truck tires being iffy and the rental expensive. So I bought one of those live traps (costing a day and a half of car rental!) and some blocks of poison. I baited the live trap in the garage, set the snap trap again—with different bait this time—and placed chunks of the poison strategically around the car. With my awesome, three-pronged assault in place, this terrorist was going down. My thoughts, of course, focused only on protecting my wife.
First thing the next morning, I hit the garage. I was stunned. He had ignored every one of my IEDs (Improvised Extermination Device), even the compassionate one. I say "he" but it was probably a female—a male certainly wouldn't be that much trouble. I heard her rustling around somewhere, did a circle of the car but couldn't locate the source of the gnawing. Finally, I triangulated the sound to a shelf next to the car, where she had crawled into a four-foot length of four-inch corrugated plastic pipe. Somehow I had to trap her in there. She’d be back in the car for sure if I muffed it. Luckily I had a stash of empty peanut butter jars within reach—just the right diameter—so I eased one into the near end of the pipe. I lifted the other end carefully and quickly stuffed another jar into it. Now I had her!
But I also had the pipe by both ends and couldn't let go without risking setting the rat free. Getting the garage door open required an act of contortionism. Once outside I went to the back door of the house, repeated the contortion trick there, and called Gus. When he came out, I tipped the pipe up and let the bottom jar fall out, which produced no rat but a lot of scrambling up the pipe. The panic-generated rat pee that had puddled in the pipe (now there’s some alliteration for you) sloshed out onto my shoes. My high-stepping reaction didn’t even dislodge the varmint. By then Gus knew what was up and his shrill barks let the rat in on it, too. With my feet well back this time, I shook the pipe hard and the rat hit the ground. Gus is lightening quick but the rat faked like a ball carrier and he missed his tackle. With Gus right on its tail the rat made it under the porch, where the piercing barks continued. It is hard to believe the small places a pack rat can fit into. I had to get a skinny stick to probe around in the cracks. When the rat had enough, it made a break and Gus was on it. Never takes long after that. Last year a rattlesnake and a couple of marmots met the same fate.
Only by heroic effort did I succeed before Jane’s departure time. That isn’t to say I became a hero; nobody loved me up or called me "good dog." At least I saved the price of a car rental. Er, I mean I kept my wife safe. ♦