October 24, 2017
Just as we looked out Joyce’s home-office window, a large black bear hurried up our lawn.
Behind her, struggling to keep up, waddled a dutiful cub, worried Mom would outdistance him (or her—who knows?).
A moment later, at the lawn’s far end, a second cub burst from the bushes. This one stared in alarm at Mom’s receding back, then scrambled up the lawn after her and the dutiful sibling.
Now, her two cubs closely following, the bear stepped over the stone wall and started down the hill by the waterfall. At that moment, out from the bushes, burst yet a third cub. This latecomer eyed the rapidly disappearing family, then bounced up the lawn after them, jauntily—the naughty cub, the rebel, the I’ll-do-it-my-way cub.
Not that Mom seemed to care. She splashed full tilt across the stream below the waterfall, then disappeared into the pine woods, cubs hurrying behind. Mom, apparently, had an important date, probably with somebody’s birdfeeder, and if the cubs wanted to stay parented, they’d better keep up. No hover parent, this ursine tiger mom dished out tough love.
It brought back a memory: once I worked as a zoo’s bear-cub keeper. My twenty-eight charges lived in a broad round pit, with concrete walls they couldn’t scale. At the circular pit’s hub stood their nighttime cub cave, a stone igloo with an iron door. For climbing, they had a two-story dead tree, rising from the igloo’s top. They also had a little swimming pool, for taking a dip.
One of my responsibilities was warning visitors to stop dangling their toddlers down into the pit to pet the bears, an extremely bad idea, because my cubs were all little swatters. It was how they played and expressed themselves. I also cleaned the pit’s sand floor, but my hardest task was herding all twenty-eight cubs into their cave every night and shutting the door.
I’d get three in, go out for more. Meanwhile, the first three would seize the opportunity for a jailbreak.
Heading home in the evening, I’d stop first at my father’s shop—he tarred roofs and installed forced-air furnaces—where the two guys working with him always sniffed, then proclaimed: “Hey, do I smell bear?”
Here’s how tough my cubs were: once two of them got into a fight on top of their climbing tree, and one got swatted off. He plummeted two stories, bounced off the stone igloo, and sat on the pit’s sand floor, glaring up at his rival and literally shaking his fist, or paw.
I’d get home every night with new scratches on my arms. My cubs did love to swat.
They came in black, brown, and cinnamon, although they were just one species, black bears. They also came in assorted ages and sizes, from halfway to my knee (when standing erect on their hind legs) to just above my knee.
My littler cubs loved me. They’d stand up, throw up their arms (front legs) and begged to be lifted and held. Others regarded me with indifference. However, the biggest cub, whom I called “Gargantua,” hated me. I threatened his alpha-cub position, in his mind, and he wanted me to die.
He’d hide behind the igloo and when I passed by, from around the curve, a paw would flash out to swat.
Eventually I gave up trying to make friends and ignored Gargantua, who’d sit off to the side glaring at me. One evening, though, his glare seemed more thoughtful, as if he’d been pondering the situation. Finally, he made up his mind. I’m sure I saw him nod.
He walked to me and held up his front legs, as he’d seen the littlest cubs do, begging to be lifted up and held.
At last, I thought.
I lifted him up. I looked into his brown eyes, he looked into my blue eyes. His expression turned to triumph.
He gave me a powerful swat, on the cheek.
Then he jumped down and I could almost hear him sniggering.
Here’s what: I love bears, and I especially love bear cubs.
And the one I’ve always loved the most was Gargantua, who never loved me.
September 23, 2017
I’m looking out my home office window and on the far bank of our large pond I see 15 ducks sitting in a row. Clearly they hatched this spring, and now they’re the equivalent of human teenagers, so full of energy they race every which way, on a whim.
They flew in four weeks ago, at first just a few, but more kept coming. The attraction? Our apple trees.
Now, as if they discussed it, they are suddenly waddling towards the apple tree at the bottom of the lawn, near the pond. For a few weeks now it has been dropping its apples.
Our ducks seem to be a mix of wood ducks, black ducks, and mallards, all supposed to swim in the shallows, tails tipped up, heads underwater, munching pond grasses off the bottom. We’ve never seen them tipping at all. For them, it’s all about apples.
At first, the apples puzzled the ducks. How do you eat these things? Eventually, they found the secret—spear the apples with your bill.
Yes, the ducks actually do this. We have watched them, apples stuck on their bills, like clown noses, waddling at great speed towards the pond, to escape their fellow ducks, who have not succeeded in spearing the apples and want the apple-catching ducks to share. They tear off bits of the apples to eat, although many apples end up bobbing in our pond when the ducks try to free the apples from their bills or to snatch another duck’s apple.
Deer, too, like to gather at the apple tree to munch, but the ducks resent these apple rustlers, and they do something about it. One duck, who we call Braveheart, marched right up to two does, with some of her more timid followers lurching behind her. She walked closer and closer to the deer, until she stood defiantly under their noses. Then she speared an apple from between one doe’s hooves and marched away. Once a fawn came to the apple tree with its mother, and when the ducks waddled toward it, the startled fawn jumped backward, and then bolted for the forest.
It’s not always apples. Sometimes, at high speed, the ducks zig and zag all over our large lawn. It’s hard to see why, except that they’re teenagers. That’s why they have so much energy.
At some point, they will fly south. We will miss them.
August 4, 2017
This Caribbean island looks serene, but don't kid yourself
Lately I worry a lot about who to kill off.
Don’t call the police—I’m talking about characters in the thriller I’m currently writing.
I don’t mind offing bad guys, because they fully deserve it. Every one of them, believe me. It’s the good characters who trouble me, imaginary people I’ve come to like and respect.
I’m writing this novel, so I suppose I’m Zeus, and I get to decide who dies and who lives. However, the truth is that the story itself is king of the gods, with its own wishes and demands and requirements. Authors are soothsayers. All we can do, really, is divine what the story wants and do its bidding.
For instance, this novel started as a pure thriller, set on a Caribbean island, but I’m about midway through now and—all on its own—it’s taken on a faint sci-fi tinge, although nothing that couldn’t actually happen in the world today. Let’s just hope it doesn’t.
is the novel’s title. So far, at least. Even in titles, the story will have its way, so we’ll see.
Anyway, back to the question of good characters dying. For some reason, in our real world, we’ve lately had a rash of people we know dying. People not yet in their fullness of years. Brain cancers, heart attacks, prostate cancer, rare disorders with unpronounceable names….
I suppose that what determines who dies too young is not goodness, not badness. It’s just how our story wants to be told.
June 27, 2017
Eric & Murdock, just awarded a ribbon for winning a race (again!)
In our celebrity obsessed society, where it seems only People Magazine
A-listers rate attention, here’s what we see all around us—talent, ability, accomplishment, decency. In this blog, we try to acknowledge what we see.
So, here’s one….
Our friend Eric was just inducted into the Vermont runners’ Hall of Fame, with these words:
“For the better part of three decades, Eric Morse was the most dominant road runner in Vermont.” And this: “Whenever Eric entered a local race, the only question was who would finish in second behind him.”
Six-times the state’s high-school champion in cross country and track. A running scholarship to college. Then, seven times, a member of the U.S.A Mountain Running Team, competing internationally, often racing up Alpine peaks. Who even knew there was such a sport? Not us, until we met Eric.
He’s retired from Team U.S.A., but he still races. He partners with his super-fast West Highland Terrier, Murdock, and he’s still a champ—he and Murdock miss few “six-legged” races in the U.S. northeast.
They win every one.
--Joyce & Richard
May 8, 2017
This tableau of dinosaurs partially inspired one of Richard’s fantasy stories, “Last Days of the Cretaceous,” in his anthology, Frankie & Johnny, & Nellie Bly
It’s set in Atlantis, where aristocratic sportsmen hunt the tyrannosaurus rex.
Yes, dinosaurs disappeared long before humans showed up. We all know that.
Yet, here’s this convivial family, grazing at Florida’s Dinosaur World. It shows the huge reptiles and humans can co-exist, if the dinosaurs are made of concrete.
--Richard & Joyce
February 25, 2017
Western Movies Didn't Get It Quite Right
Conestoga wagon—the iconic wagon of the pioneer west!
We photographed this Conestoga wagon at the Shelburne (Vt.) Museum, one of the nearly 200 sleighs, coaches, and wagons in its “Horse-Drawn Vehicle Collection,” housed in a vast barn shaped, appropriately, like a horseshoe.
If your ancestors made the westward migration, they probably rode in a “prairie schooner,” a smaller, lighter wagon. Conestogas were too big and heavy to lumber across the roadless Great Plains. They were called “ships of commerce.” They were the Mack Trucks of the 18th and 19th centuries. Few, if any, crossed the Mississippi River.
Each Conestoga wagon, drawn by teams of horses, mules, or oxen, hauled up to six tons of cargo. Each had a rear-mounted feed box, for the animals, sort of a pre-industrial gas tank. Conestogas transported goods extensively in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, often forming long wagon trains. Conestogas’ floors curved upward, so the cargo wouldn’t fall out.
Incidentally, people didn’t ride in Conestogas, only cargo did. People walked alongside, although the wagons did have a wooden plank mounted on one side. It was to accommodate sore feet, and it was called “the lazy seat.”
We frequently visit the Shelburne Museum—39 historic buildings on 45 acres, exhibiting everything from duck decoys to impressionistic paintings. Among other things, it takes you time-travelling back into the past, when much transportation depended on hooves.
It wasn’t just those American pioneers, heading for California, either. Richard’s great-grandmother rode a covered wagon, not so different from the Conestoga, but that was across the Russian steppes.
--Joyce & Richard
January 31, 2017
A LIVING SCULPTURE
She is roughly 30 feet high. She is a living sculpture, made of plants.
Based on Chinese myth, she was one of 50 such giant foliage-and-flower sculptures we saw at the Mosaicultures Internationales Exhibit at the Montreal Botanical Gardens--galloping horses, parading lemurs with their tails up, a shepherd with dog and flock, pandas frolicking, waterfowl taking flight….
This summer, 2017, the Mosaicultures will be back, this time at Gatineau, Quebec (across the river from Ottawa), as MosaiCanada 150, celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday. See it if you can. These stunning sculptures are all made from living plants, but they aren’t topiary, which is shaped shrubs.
It is a highly complex form of art. The artists--from all over the world--must design and build frameworks for the sculptures, blend the colors, and plan for the maintenance of each plant they use.
It lifts your spirits.
January 5, 2017
Richard Tries Out A Bike
In "Spider's Web in the Green Mountains," just published, why do mysterious motorcycles roar past the heroine's house in the night?
Why is a biker threatening her corgi, Henry?
Generally, what's with all these Harleys and Hondas?
In this photo, we see the author doing serious, in-depth research for his mystery, sitting on a parked motorcycle to get the feel of the thing.
It felt pretty good.
December 25, 2016
When our friend Murdock last visited, it was Green Murdock, because he got wet and rolled in the grass. Here he is again, but now it's Muddy Murdock--
Because a dog's gotta do what a dog's gotta do!
Next visit? Who knows?
--Richard & Joyce
November 17, 2016
Vermont's mountains--just right for a murder mystery
I took this photograph in the Vermont mountains and it led to the novel I’ve just published, a mystery.
It’s about the people living in a small town, tucked away in these Green Mountains.
Everyone is connected. It’s as if an invisible spider web crisscrosses the town, every resident touched by its strands: loves, grievances, envies, kindnesses, marriages, divorces, business deals….
Spider’s Web in the Green Mountains
is the book’s title.
A murder perturbs the web.
It even affects a Pembroke Welsh corgi, Henry.
Another major character is Dill, Vermont, the town itself.
I know something about small towns, because I grew up in one, along the Hudson River. We live near a small town now. It’s just a five-minute drive down the mountainside.
It’s interesting to read the police report in the daily paper, lost wallets and domestics and hypodermic needles found in alleyways and wandering dogs.
No murders lately, but you never know.
Check out our published books
Stories published in literary journals
A "Pleistocene western," published in Reflections Edge
A nonfiction book of stories about disappearing animals, published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
An award-winning chronicle of life and caring in a small hospital, published in Smithsonian Magazine
Just when a terrifying illness strikes, a self-confident corgi appears on our deck, seeking a new home, and he becomes our guide.