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The Thing About Spring

Last week I polished my toenails pink in preparation for sandal weather. Last night it snowed. So the sandals remained in the closet, and the fuzzy socks came out of the drawer. The thing about spring is this: you never know what it’s going to do.

This morning the plants, somewhat confused, wore a wet blanket, and snowflakes fell on the poor starlings that sat stoically on the wire. The orioles were happy enough because the hummingbird feeder had not frozen solid, so they still had a source of food. My lab was a happy camper too. Black as night, she ran outside in the early light and dug her nose in the fresh white snow.

Oriole on Lilac in Snow


For me, the first sign of spring is the arrival of the robin. I know they are a common sight in most places, but in Sand Canyon I only see them when they are passing through. Since we’ve been having regular spring rain and snow showers it makes for good worm hunting, and we have had more than the usual number of spring visitors.  I have taken great pleasure in seeing the flash of their reddish-orange breasts as they fly through golden fields or perch on a stump or fence rail. Robins are a brave bird. One can get very close before they will fly away.

Although I adore the Sand Canyon winter in all its varied glory, I can’t help feeling excited when I see my first robin. This year it happened in mid-February, and I managed to snap a picture of one in the dry winter stubble. Since then I have seen at least a hundred.  I recently watched a group of six foraging near a tree in the field I call my yard. The snow had just melted and I was astounded at the number of worms they were finding. After all, this is the high desert, and I rarely see a worm. But there they were, six fat robins, cocking their heads and pulling up one juicy worm after the other.

I couldn’t help but wonder how the robins were finding all these worms, so I consulted my oracle the internet. It informed me than an ornithologist named Dr. Heppner conducted an extensive experiment to determine the answer. He had concluded that robins primarily use their eyesight to find wormholes with worms inside. If there is no worm, they ignore the hole. If only I could see that well!

BTW: One of my favorite children’s books is The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Mary the heroine is led into the secret garden by a friendly robin and her life is changed forever. This was an English Robin, a much different bird than an American Robin but with a similar color on its breast. The English robin is actually a flycatcher, while the American robin is a thrush. Our red-breasted thrush owes its name to its European distant cousin, because it reminded the early American settlers of their own special bird back home.

First robin


For me, winter starts with the first snowfall. Here are some pics of the snow that fell last weekend. Not much, but beautiful nonetheless.

Snow on Tomo-Kahni

Snow on Sugarloaf

Snow on juniper berries

Snow on our lawn ornament

Peaceful Donkeys at Peaceful Valley

Everyday I pass Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue, but have never stopped. The children’s author Susan Patron has a wonderful burro named Chesterfield in her Lucky novels. I was talking with her about the Donkey Rescue at an SCBWI Writer’s Day and realized that I needed to visit this wonderful place.

The opportunity afforded itself yesterday, when the local facility had an open house in honor of the hundred plus Hawaiian Donkeys that had just been airlifted to California, then trucked to Sand Canyon. They were descendents of donkeys who had worked in the coffee plantations.

The donkeys had a calming effect on me. Maybe it was their soft white noses, the long furry ears, or their gentle demeanor. I immediately wanted to adopt one. My husband was dead set against it, and got a friend of his to try to talk me out of it.

Eventually, I decided it was a bad idea for me. I had no time to take care of a donkey, and I’d have to adopt two because donkeys have special friends from whom they cannot be separated.  That would mean twice the hay, twice the vet bills, and eight hooves to groom.  Apparently, the cost of hay has skyrocketed, like the cost of everything else. And donkeys hate canines. They kill coyotes. I was sure that my dog would be more jealous of the donkeys than she is of the cat. There would probably be a fight to the death and the dog would lose.  On top of that, a donkey’s bray can be loud as a bullhorn, not a pleasant sound in the wee hours of the morning. I know because my neighbors had donkeys.

Still…. I’d really like a donkey! I mean two donkeys. Two soft, cuddly sentient beings, the color of the sand and dust in the canyon, and as calming as ocean waves. Creatures that have helped man with his labors throughout the centuries. Animals that need a home.

The Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue here in Sand Canyon does a wonderful job with their animals. They even have the equivalent of a nursing home for elderly donkeys. When we rode by their pen on our hayride tour, the old ones were flehming at us, i.e. they lifted their upper lips to get a better whiff, exposing their old chipped teeth. According to our guide, equine teeth grow longer as they age and that’s the origin of the idiom “long in the tooth.” I imagine these donkeys long in the tooth and happy, braying about their life adventures, and enjoying a well-deserved retirement at Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue.

If you want to learn more about these wonderful animals, adopt two, or donate toward the cost of their care, please go to

Titmouse and Juniper

This morning I saw a titmouse. I knew it was a titmouse because of the small crest on its head like a pointed cowl, and the fact that it was small and grey like a mouse. Astute reasoning told me that it was probably a Juniper Titmouse since it was pecking at the bark of a juniper tree.

It was a cold morning and the sun was not yet up, a time when birds are very active (in case you never get up that early). I was out on the patio all bundled up in my fuzzy green robe drinking my morning mug of coffee, when I heard a tapping in the bush beside me. The titmouse pecked on the juniper, jumped to the ground, bounced back up and then repeated the sequence several times, while giving its throaty call. I haven’t seen a titmouse in quite some time, so I followed it when it flew over to another juniper where I scared a covey of quail that had been hiding in the thick branches. They flew off, their wings making a whirring noise like egg beaters.  Then the titmouse flew into a cypress tree where I lost sight of him.

I examined the branch of the old juniper (Juniperus californica) where the birds had been hiding. Last winter a heavy snow bent it to the breaking point. Though one of its main branches split in two, the foliage is still green and the branch is covered with hundreds of the light blue berries that bears love. I skimmed the thin flesh off a few berries with my teeth, but they tasted the way pine pitch smells, an astringent taste that made my tongue go dry. Maybe in a few weeks, when the berries turn purple – maybe then they will be sweeter. Why would a bear eat them, if they taste like sap? And bears do eat them. It’s common to see bear scat full of juniper berries.

I hope the bears are not trying to get a buzz, because juniper berries are used to make gin.  The Kawaiisu made bows from the branches, and used the soft bark for baby diapers. The women ground the berries, and molded them into sweet cakes. Early settlers used the branches for barbed wire fence posts. They were apparently very sturdy, for a few of these posts can still be seen along Sand Canyon Road.

I like junipers because they provide shade, shelter, and forage for a wide variety of wildlife. Sometimes used for bonsai, the junipers make the canyon look like a Japanese garden gone wild. And they can live for hundreds of years.

Juniper fence

Juniper berries

Juniper and lawn ornament

Mares’ Tails

Here is a picture of a cirrus cloud called a Mare’s Tail. These clouds indicate a coming change in the weather. Last week this Mare’s Tail appeared in the sky, followed by a cold front out of Alaska and rain. In my book The Butterfly Basket, a sky full of Mares’ Tails is a sign of coming trouble for the young heroines.


Yesterday was Sand Canyon Road clean-up day. I love walking along our country road picking up trash, especially on a crisp October day. At the beginning of my trash trek gunshots echoed through the canyon from the large group gathered at the gun club, and a fighter jet flew low over the wind turbines. But eventually, those sounds died down, and there was just me, the rabbitbrush, and the occasional pickup zooming by.

I always find some interesting trash, and this time was no exception. Among the empty beer cans and Marlboro packs, was a pair of shoes. New white sport shoes. It looked as if someone had walked right out of them and into the brush.

I’ve always wondered why so many shoes litter the edges of the local freeways and roads. Are shoes not expensive, and also important protection for ones feet? Why would people just chuck them out the window as if they were empty cans?

Many years ago, my husband and I were walking our dog through the canyon along a route we rarely took when we saw a family that had recently moved onto a vacant lot. There they had constructed a crude cabin and hand dug a well. They did not speak English but some foreign language I didn’t recognize. I guessed they were Eastern European, perhaps refugees, the mother and three children all blondes, the grandmother as dark as a gypsy and the father somewhere in between. We stopped to say hello to him as he sat in his muddy SUV reading the bible. He spoke English but was neither friendly nor forthcoming.

Six months came and went before we walked down that narrow dirt road again. By then the shack had been knocked down, and in a pile of cast-off belongings on the top of a knoll were several pairs of shoes. Children’s shoes. Perfectly good children’s shoes. Why would they leave their shoes? Why would anyone leave their shoes?

The lone shoes.