Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sweet Nectar and Hummingbirds

     Last year, in my first spring season on this particular mountain, I installed some decorative hangers around the decks and dutifully set my hummingbird feeders out to attract my diminutive avian friends over for a sugary free meal.  I have a long history of feeding these gentle birds, so I was disheartened by the scarce numbers of my friends-in-flight that came and visited.  During that first season of warm temperatures, the need to frequently discard soured and/or ant infested nectar tested my determination, but each week I continued to wash, sanitize and refill the bottles in desperate anticipation of the absent flocks with which I had become accustomed to since living in North Carolina.
     This year, fearing a similar disappointment, I was tempted to forego my annual spring tradition, but in an attempt to stave off the depression of my solitary life, I once again revived the practice of wash, fill, and wait.
     To my delight, the word must have gone out via the avian social networks (Eggbook, Tweeter, Beakerest, and Feathers +), because by my count, I have more than two dozen tiny friends dining and dancing each day on all sides of my home.
     The handsome and dapper ruby-throated males,
From my deck, this male is pausing between courses.
along with their minions of drab-dressed hens, swoop and flit between the dense forestation and my half-dozen bottles of calorie laden, sweet liquid.  In the frantic chases between shelter and food, the incessant buzzing of their impossibly fast wings is frequently accompanied by the soft staccato chirps of tiny vocalizations.  Yes, hummingbirds do sing!  Their soft chirp-chirp-chirp belies the widely held belief that they, as a species, had in mass, forgotten all the bird-words and were condemned to a forlorn life of sadly humming their tunes.  
     Their presence around my house has become as accepted to me as my presence in their secluded woodland has become to them.  They are so accustomed to me being outside that they often hover within mere inches of my face to say hello and investigate the friendly giant that keeps their plastic flowers full of energy juice.  I talk to them; I know that sounds crazy, but each day I acknowledge them in a quiet voice, assuring them of their safety and my delight at their presence.  They have abandoned their instinctive fears, and in turn, answer me back in tiny voices of acceptance, gaining more confidence each day, approaching nearer and nearer, and staying a little longer with each visit. 
     These are the gentlest of creatures, each weighing not much more than a tenth of an ounce (or for my European friends, about 3.4 grams).  The rapid drumming of the Archilochus Colubris’ wings foretells their approach, flapping their 3 - 4inch wingspan about 55 times per second.  Everything is dynamically quick in the world of Apodiformes: Mating takes only 2 - 3 seconds, but that is 110 - 160 wing-flaps.  I don’t know about you, but I would be exhausted.  Their tiny hearts beat about 1260 times per minute and they breathe approximately 250 times per minute.  If that alone is not testament to their incredible athleticism, perhaps knowing that during flight, their oxygen consumption per gram of muscle is more than ten times that of our most well-trained human athletes.  But with that I am left to wonder how those biologists were able to strap a miniscule oxygen mask over those tiny needle-like beaks and take measurements.  And where did they get a stethoscope small enough to listen to a hummingbird’s heart?  I’m not one to question science, but…?
     Anyways, the darts and dashes around and across my porches are so ordinary, that I rarely take notice any more.  I still speak to my friends when they come right up to my face, but their flights to and from the feeders are no longer novel enough to capture my attention.  There are however, infrequent times where I am forced to duck and cover.  Apparently, in the world hummingbird courting, it is common that two or more females will violently fight over access to their desired male.  Now I am used to these shenanigans in my own life, but I found it interesting to see that behavior in another species of females.  The sex-craved hens fan their tails wide, swooping, dive-bombing  and engaging  in spectacular midair dogfights (cat-fights?) that would make the best of our Top Gun pilots jealous.  The speed and chaotic paths of their catty competitions endanger anyone or anything in their proximity.  Twice, my instinctively spastic recoil brought the fighting hens back to hover close in an investigative apology; their argument momentarily suspended due to the inadvertent vexation of their giant benefactor.  Once they were confident that I was unharmed and not annoyed, their frantic wing-chase resumed with renewed death defying aerial acrobatics.
There is an abundant and diverse population of animals in the Great Smoky Mountains, but there are only a few that I enjoy and welcome as much as my hummingbird friends.  Sure the bears, wolves, fox and cougars are neat to watch, but I don’t want them as close neighbors.  The deer, elk, turkeys, eagles, and hawks I fear would be difficult and messy in close environs.  The smaller critters like rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, and raccoons would be ill-fitted at the house with my dog.  So while I enjoy the outdoors and all that nature affords me in these Edenic mountains; I will leave the animal life to the wilds, but continue to cultivate friendships with my dear acquaintances, the hummingbirds.

As a side note, I am finishing this little muse in a motel room on the outskirts of Gatlinburg, Tennessee.  My friend Sandra, my dog Sebastian and I took the rare opportunity afforded by a momentary lapse in my workload to cross the state line and explore this country’s most visited national park from the Tennessee side.  We are going to spend the day driving / hiking / photographing our way through Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  I hope to have some fun tales and spectacular pictures to share with you in the coming days.  Until then, does anyone know where I can get a cup of coffee?  This motel sucks, but everything else was booked solid.  Spur of the moment has its disadvantages.

Friday, July 18, 2014

An American Alone

     The pain was intense, almost blinding, and it swept over him in undulating waves of increasing agony.  There was no time to savor the experience, the warm wet sensation on his back made it clear that the wound was through-and-through.  The shot was in his upper chest, just below his right shoulder.  He had escaped death, but not the danger of his situation.  Coursing adrenaline kept him moving in spite of the onset of the symptoms of shock.  He knew if he stopped, he would die alone in this foreign city.
    The streets were deserted, the Cassock leader, Ivanovitz, had taken his wallet, passport and phone.  He did not speak or understand the local Ukrainian dialect and with no means of contacting his team, he was as alone as one could be. The only comfort he found was in the ankle holster of the one Crimean he took out before the rebels overpowered him.  The Makarov only had four cartridges in the clip, and with his right arm incapacitated, the odds were not in his favor.
     Sevastopol was too far from Yalta to travel while wounded and without papers; there would be no backup, no extraction team to save Nastya; it was him and him alone.  Necessity was his only plan.
     Three blocks in from the water, the streets were dark and quiet.  The bars and whore houses crowded the harbor, but here, working class families slept in tightly clustered stucco homes, their whitewashed paint corroded and pealing from the sea air.  At each corner, one single, dim yellow streetlamp threatened to reveal his presence.  Even with the leather jacket he borrowed from his gun donor hiding the blood from his wounds, his labored gait would arouse the suspicion of any passing patrol of Berkut, the Special Forces in charge of curbing the anti-Russian revolt. 
     The six blocks sapped his energy.  Twice he held his back tight against doorways as headlights intersected the dark street.  At one corner, he was forced to lie a dog littered shrub as two police cars, with their two toned sirens blaring, responded to a drunken raucous near the waterfront.  Every minute spent hiding meant more blood loss and lessened the chances for Nastya.  He needed sleep and he needed a doctor; neither was a luxury he could afford.
     The concrete stairway of a warehouse offered an elevated view of the Cassock safe house at the corner Shcherbaka Street.  Inside he counted five guards, two asleep on the sofa and three playing cards in the kitchen.  In the center of the room was Nastya, tied to the fourth kitchen chair, bloodied and seemingly unconscious.  His only hope was that her motionless state was a result of her training and not from the beating she must have taken. 

     He counted his four rounds again, gripped the pistol in his only usable hand and started across the street.  It was a mere four meters from the shadows to the front door.  The adrenaline once again masked his pain as he started his sprint. 

Monday, July 7, 2014

My Festive Fourth of July on the Mountain

     Most of you know I live high on a mountainside, and I love it.  The views are incredible, I am surrounded by nature, I almost never need to turn on air conditioning, my house is ideally set up for a work-at-home writer, and the relative isolation provides the kind of undisturbed quiet that is conducive to my work.
     The things often referred to as disadvantages by people who visit, are not really difficult to endure as long as you are prepared and plan for the necessities.   My driveway is 800 feet long, has a 180 degree switchback near the top and drops over 110 feet from the garage to the one-lane road coming up the mountain, so in the event of a heavy snowfall, there is no practical way to shovel or maneuver a vehicle down the grade.  No big deal as long as I keep plenty of food in the house; it’s a small price to pay for living where I want.
      My mailbox is a half mile away and approximately 1,000 feet below the house.  Since the vast majority of my revenue arrives by mail, it gives me a daily excuse to get off my bum and treat my dog to his favorite activity: a ride in the truck.
      The house is only two stories, but it sits atop an above ground basement and garage.  The builder elected to construct the whole structure with ten-foot ceilings, so from my cozy office on the second floor to the truck is two flights of 18 stairs.  I admit that shortly after moving in here, my legs would occasionally file a grievance with Body Parts Union, but after a year-and-a-half in residence, they have accustomed themselves to the working conditions and no longer complain if I make the climb forgetting something and have to retrace my steps more than once.

     Like I said, the disadvantages are not difficult as long as I stay prepared.

     As the end of the month of June neared, money became scarce as it does most every month and Sebastian (my dog) and I set out for our routine trip down to retrieve the mail.  I had preplanned that if there was not a significant amount of money in the box, I would forego the trip into town until the next day: there was one pitiful check of no consequence.  To give both Bubba (the dog’s nickname) and me a break, I did stop at one of the village stores to pick something up and left the truck’s A/C running to keep him cool in the lower altitude heat.  When we returned to the house and climbed the outside steps to the front deck, I heard a strange and disheartening noise.  It was the coolant rapidly escaping the overheated radiator in my truck.  You guessed it; I hadn’t planned on that.
     I sat isolated and stranded until the 2nd, knowing that some money I had lent would be returned on the 3rd.  I had a friend come collect me and drive me to town where I rented a car and arranged to have the truck towed and repaired.  The estimate for the repair was going to strip me clean of all available money, so I cancelled my nonexistent plans for the holiday weekend and returned to the mountain to await the tow truck.
     The next day, even though my loan remained unpaid, I returned the rental, picked up my truck and some needed provisions and returned to the manse with the intention of a quiet weekend of writing and editing.
     On the Fourth of July, I slept late anticipating an evening of watching the fireworks down in the valley from the front deck supping on a juicy cheeseburger, some crispy fries, a dish of summer cucumber salad and enjoying a glass (or two) of my favorite Merlot.  All was well until the sun slipped behind the Tennessee Smokys and my all-American dog reminded me in no uncertain terms that the rocket’s red glare, bombs bursting in air was not something he enjoyed, and he gave me proof through the night that the “fright” was still there.
     I worked and piddled all weekend; did some laundry and some housekeeping, feeling secure in my little corner of Eden with the knowledge my truck was back running and although I had no aspiration of leaving, it was comforting to know that I could if I wanted. 

      Now, if that loan would only get repaid, everything would be just great.