The Bella Saga

     It is not my habit to leave our neighborhood via this particular street, but when I do so on this morning, it alters the remainder of my day. From the corner of my eye I see a canine running loose, sniffing at a fellow dog nose through a fence. For a moment I debate how to proceed, before I pull the car over to the side of the road. I cautiously approach and soothingly talk to her. Her eye-catching tall and slender body is covered with a whitish coat. When she turns toward me, I stare into a pair of striking husky-like eyes. She wags her tail and allows me to examine a frayed rope wrapped around her neck. Unfortunately, she does not wear a collar or alternative identification. Once I take her lead, she follows me willingly, and we walk along some of the nearby streets, hoping to run into her owner. Her healthy coat and clipped claws suggest that she is not homeless.

     My search is fruitless, but I receive helpful suggestions from local dog owners, and my foundling and I visit a vet office. An ID chip is detected under the skin and I learn her name – Bella. How apropos. The assistant even reaches her owner by telephone. What good luck, I think, until I learn that, sadly, she no longer has any interest in taking her pet back. Reportedly, Bella is an escape artist and she can deal with her no longer. Now I am faced with the decision of whether or not to become a dog owner (again). My husband and I agree that it is not feasible at this point.

     Besides, Bella does not want to be adopted by us anyhow. Demonstrating her fugitive tendencies repeatedly in the ensuing hours, she attempts to dig out under our fence and finally clambers over it and trots down the alley behind the house. I am able to recapture her and am grateful and relieved when another couple volunteers to either keep her, or to find her a new home. I much prefer this option to taking her to the humane society. But soon after I drop Bella off at their home, she acts aggressively toward one of their dogs, and her propensity to seek her freedom yet again overcomes any potential desire or need to settle down and be taken care off. Soon thereafter she is observed running along a busy street, with a dog catcher in hot pursuit. Ironically, the humane society is getting involved after all.

     Even though we spent only part of a day together, my thoughts often return to it, and I see Bella’s hauntingly beautiful eyes before me. For a while, we found an occasional white hair on our carpet or in the car, having eluded the vacuum cleaner. Should we have kept her and tried to make her stay? Even now I sense that she would not have altered her ways, a lot of love and attention notwithstanding, and we weren’t ready for the drama of having to chase her down regularly.

     I wonder where she is now, but I have resisted the urge to learn about the outcome of that particular episode involving us, which sounds like only one in a long line of escapades. Instead, I choose to envision her running wild with a clique of coyotes on the prairie, or with a pack of wolves in Yellowstone. The alternative is too sad. Bella is a free spirit, and I naively hope that there remains room in our world for free spirits to roam.

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/05/25/die-bella-saga/

The Handmaid’s Tale-Some Thoughts

When I read The Handmaid’s Tale in February 2017, little did I know how much this novel by contemporary Canadian author Margaret Atwood (born 1939) would be in the press a few months later. As it turned out, it was serialized for Hulu, a video on demand service, with the season premiere having been broadcast in late April. Because the title is so hot at present, I decided to join the fray.

The book was on my TBR list for a long time and I finally relented to my nagging literary conscience. The Handmaid’s Tale was my first exposure to a bestselling writer who has garnered too many literary honors to mention, and been nominated for many more. I am no particular fan of dystopian literature, and since my exposure to required classics like 1984, Brave New World, and Animal Farm in high school, I have not often delved into this genre. Even though I can’t claim to have liked Margaret Atwood’s story, I am, nonetheless, glad I read it.

Set in the Republic of Gilead, a futuristic, theocratic, totalitarian state (presumably the US), where environmental degradation has engendered infertility in many women, the ruling-class families keep “handmaids” for the sole purpose of procreation. These maids are put through a process of brainwashing and are not supposed to have their own thoughts or opinions. The novel’s “heroine”, if she deserves this title, is Offred. This translates to “Of Fred”, based on the name of the man she is assigned to, as she is not entitled to her own. Her only reason to exist is to bear healthy children to the so-called elites. To optimize the human birthing machine, her monthly hormonal fluctuations are minutely monitored. When the time is right, the handmaids undergo a ritual cleansing, before exposing only the prerequisite body part to their perpetrators, in a grotesque and dehumanizing “ceremony”.

Despite the system’s best efforts at enforcing subjugation and conformity, Offred remembers a life before the takeover. During an attempt to flee to a neighboring country (presumably Canada), she and her family were overtaken. Her husband was almost certainly assassinated, and her daughter abducted and adopted by one of the leading families. Offred’s dream of a reunion motivates her to keep on living, if that is what her existence can be called, instead of escaping it through suicide, a popular way out for many handmaids, despite the rulers best attempts at removing all means to effect it.

Offred’s hope is buoyed when she meets a fellow servant who, like herself, does not appear fully assimilated, even if she can’t be sure that this other woman is not a spy. Dissenters who are caught suffer a horrendous public execution portrayed in bone-chilling detail. When Offred is picked up by a van, the usual means of apprehending and transporting traitors to these show trials, neither she nor the reader knows if her captors represent friends or foes, and the tale culminates in this cliffhanger.

While I found it impossible to “enjoy” the nightmarish world created by Margaret Atwood, I enjoyed her masterful narrative style. The degree to which the choice and pace of language reflected Offred’s inner and outer life was remarkable. Her tedium and boredom were expressed by ambling phrases, her fear and panic by staccato-like sentences. Despite my constant sense of reluctance, the book was a page-turner.

The fear of totalitarian regimes, the loss of women’s rights, and the destruction of habitat is as relevant today as it was in 1985, when the novel was first published. Is it the responsibility of literature to address and elucidate current concerns, rather than to simply entertain? To prodesse aut delectare (instruct and delight), as Horace posited, or merely to delectare? What are your thoughts?

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/05/18/der-report-der-magd-eine-buchrezension

An Ode to Fountain Creek Regional Park

In recent years, the need to immerse myself in nature has become paramount. I feel fortunate that, despite Colorado’s growing population with its attendant problems, I still have access to spaces which promise solitude and an escape from continually calamitous news. One such refuge is Fountain Creek Regional Park, about eight miles south of our Colorado Springs home. It assumes a central role in my life and hardly a week goes by without a visit.

Starting as a county park in 1985, it has grown to its current size through gradual additions. The Fountain Creek Nature Center was completed in 1992, and expanded in 2014. Run by the devoted Nancy Bernard, a gaggle of paid staff, and a flock of volunteers, it fosters curiosity about the environment with its engaging exhibits, year-round youth programs, and an inviting trail system. Its incredibly scenic window and porch afford sweeping sights of our fourteener, Pikes Peak, and of its lower neighbors. Located at the boundary of the Great Plains and the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, the area benefits from the vital presence of water because it straddles our region’s largest stream, Fountain Creek. This provides live-giving liquid to a string of ponds with surrounding wetlands, and to copses of cottonwood trees with a dense understory, thereby creating a variety of habitats. Springtime with its lengthening days and warming temperatures engenders an eruption of greenery, fragrant bushes, and animal activity.

View of Pikes Peak from one of the ponds in the Cattail Marsh

The park is among El Paso County’s prime birding sites, and the number of reported species stands at 266 (according to ebird). Alas, I haven’t witnessed even half of that count, and some that were sighted decades ago likely won’t return during my lifetime. I make a game of assigning one signature bird to my favorite spots, and here, Red-winged Blackbirds rule the roost. Theirs are typically the first and most vociferous voices heard upon opening the car door in the nature center’s parking lot, because of the proximity of their realm, cattail marshes. The male’s squeaking and squealing sounds conspire with his curious comportment to garner attention. While balancing on top of a reed, he projects his head, pumps his arms, and fans his tail, communicating his earsplitting invitation to his companions.

Red-winged Blackbird, aka Superman in his cape

Blackbirds are not the exclusive exuberant and effusive members of the avifauna presently engaged in singing, feeding, mating, nest-building, or rearing their young, and with spring migration only ratcheting up, they will soon be joined by many more. Instead of attempting to enumerate all the uncommonly handsome callers, I will let a few photos speak for themselves.

Cooper’s Hawk

Belted Kingfisher: quite the hairdo

Great Horned Owl

White-faced Ibis

Great Blue Heron: a dude with a ‘tude

Plumed creatures are not the only tenants of this territory. Even though muskrats are theoretically nocturnal like their cousins, the beavers, they are diurnal enough to show their fuzzy faces in full daylight frequently. On warm days, turtles scramble onto exposed rocks. Available space is at a premium, and late-comers slide back into the pond to seek a sunny spot elsewhere. White-tailed Deer graze stretches of grassland but, to my surprise, even sample algae in shallow pools. Much squirrely commotion results in more photogenic moments. Rabbits browse in the underbrush and, no doubt, support the raptor population. Monarchs, and the park’s inspirational role in their preservation and propagation, were the topic of a previous post. A variety of butterflies and bees flutter and fly from blossom to perfumed blossom, filling the air with the faint flipping of their wondrous wings while performing the essential task of pollination.

Muskrat

Sunning turtles

White-tailed deer after an aquatic snack

Squirrel, also catching some rays

Doubtless, all this vibrancy is one of the reasons I crave this cherished sanctuary, where I can daily experience nature’s life-affirming powers which, in turn, make me feel more alive and hopeful.

Dedicated to my late mother-in-law, Hilda J. Britton (1928-2017), who loved Fountain Creek and Bear Creek Regional Parks so much, that she flew with the flock of volunteers for a number of years.

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/05/11/eine-ode-an-fountain-creek-regional-park

From Egg to Fluffball

     About a month ago, I happened across a downy Canada Goose nest faithfully tended by the mother-to-be. It falls to the female to sit on the nest for the 25 to 28 days it takes their one yearly clutch of two to eight eggs to develop.

While the science behind the formation of eggs, and the number of days each bird species incubates them can be studied and understood intellectually, the process which takes place inside this precious package, and the end result can’t be grasped entirely with a scientific mind. When a tiny beak finally breaks the shell, and a new being emerges, it is a wondrous occurrence.

     Even though I wasn’t present during the actual hatching of this new generation of Canada Geese, I saw this family of seven when the five goslings were only a day or two old.

Their cuteness and bright baby down were irresistible, and I took my time enjoying their antics. The adults were protective, but not hyper-vigilant, and the gander hissed at me only when I stepped across an invisible line. They herded their brood slowly along a stretch of fresh grass which served as a buffet for the young ones. So early in their lives, they were still a bit shaky on their legs and had to sit and rest on the ground regularly, which was immediately turned into an occasion for grooming their fluffy fuzz.

A nap was encouraged, and even though Mama Goose tucked her head under her wings, and Daddy kept careful watch, the young ones did not remain still for long. There was too much to explore in this wonderful new world that had become theirs.

      I was relieved when I found the family again two days later, still counting seven. Already, the babies were turning into mischievous toddlers, and were wrangling with one another.

Many hazards await them, and nobody knows what the future holds. But for now, I am happy for this gift of new life, and I am rooting for them.

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/05/04/vom-ei-zum-flaum/

A World in Pastel

     Getting out of Colorado Springs is the greatest challenge of our day. At seven o’clock in the morning, the traffic is already maddening. Luckily for us, a Western Meadowlark’s cheerful song emerges above the noise of the cars and instantly puts us in a better mood. It is an emblematic bird of the prairie which surrounds us as soon as we turn onto Highway 24. For the second year in succession, my husband and I travel 40 miles to our destination near Calhan, on occasion of my April birthday. This year our friend, Susanne, here on a whirlwind visit from Germany, accompanies us to the eastern reaches of El Paso County where the fantastic geology of the Paint Mines greets us amid the undulating landscape of Colorado’s High Plains. The tooth of time has gnawed spires, cones, and further fanciful forms out of the clay which constitutes the chief component of the mines. Their colors range from a near-blinding white to ocher and pink, but constantly vary as a result of the prevailing light.

Pyramidal formation

Our guest in front of the Paint Mines. We really enjoyed your visit, Susanne!

The flora, still attired in muted beige and ruddy winter tones is punctuated by perennially green yuccas, but nascent wildflowers and verdant grasses suggest vernal awakening, despite a few remnants of snow that survive in shaded crevices.

     Four to five miles of hiking trails afford far-off and close-up views of the Paint Mines. The perceivable shades and shapes are limited only by our imagination. From a distance, the structures appear like solid rock, but to touch they are friable, and leave a chalky residue on our fingers. The area has attracted humans for at least 9000 years. Indigenous North Americans hunted for prey and multi-hued clays for pottery, ceremonial paint, and additional purposes. In the late 1800s, settlers of European ancestry fashioned bricks from the natural building substrate.

Paint Mines with Pikes Peak in the background

Whenever I am here, I imagine the transformation of the panorama in the intervening millennia. Pikes Peak looms on the western horizon as it has since times immemorial, but roads and houses are relatively recent introductions, and the forest of modern-day windmills near the Paint Mines is the latest, and most controversial addition: at best affecting the scenery, at worst the health of residents, and the survival of birds.

Turbine trees

     On this mid-week morning, we share the space with few other humans, but enjoy the furred and feathered fauna. Cottontails and jackrabbits disperse at our approach, then stop and eye us from a safe distance. A Thirteen-striped Ground Squirrel makes an unexpected appearance, its coat bearing a prominent pattern.

Black-tailed Jackrabbit

Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel, unfortunately not showing its face

We see pronghorn and deer, but foxes and coyotes remain hidden, as do reptiles, especially the rattling kind, much to our relief. Many winged beings call this place home, year-round or temporarily. Rock Wrens’ melodies reverberate in the maze of the mines, Northern Mockingbirds impress with their repertoire, and the fluting of Western Meadowlarks continues to delight.

Rock Wren

The squawking, tweeting, and chattering sounds surrounding us confirm that many creatures conduct their lives in this seemingly sparse environment.

A so-called hoodoo

One of the most iconic structures

     Taking our leave, we carry away indelible impressions of the whimsical, vibrant formations, and of its denizens, and we feel connected to visitors throughout the ages who were similarly charmed and captivated by the Paint Mines.

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/04/27/paint-mines/

A Visit to Catherland

Willa Cather (1873-1947), one of my favorites among America’s great authors, spent her formative years between nine and sixteen in Red Cloud, in south-central Nebraska. The scenery of the Great Plains seared itself into her psyche and suffused much of her writing. She might be best known for her so-called prairie trilogy, which comprises O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), and My Ántonia (1918), but others among her twelve novels are redolent of that setting. In the early 20th century, when pioneer life along the American Frontier was not considered worthy of literary pursuit, Willa Cather broke the mold and became herself a pioneer, with regard to theme, women’s central roles in their spheres, and her hallmark prose, evocative of place.

Even though American Indians had survived, even thrived, in the challenging environment of the High Plains, for those on a quest to conquer the West following the Civil War, this land posed a conundrum. Unlike the agricultural areas in the eastern states and in Europe, it was seemingly barren. Many settlers concurred with the impression of the first explorers traversing the area in the wake of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, who had referred to it as “The Great American Desert”.

For Willa herself, it wasn’t love at first sight. When she arrived in Nebraska’s Webster County in 1883 from her birthplace in Virginia, the transition from the green lushness to the semi-aridity of the High Plains was confounding. She reminisced later, “This country was mostly wild pasture and as naked as the back of your hand. I was little and homesick and lonely and my mother was homesick and nobody paid any attention. So the country and I had it out together and by the end of the first autumn, that shaggy grass country had gripped me with a passion that I have never been able to shake.” Her eventual fondness of the native flora is epitomized in a 1921 interview, “There is one book I would rather have produced than all of my novels. That is Clements Botany dealing with the wild flowers of the west.” While Willa Cather sings the praises of the raw beauty and intricate design of that carpet woven of native wildflowers and grasses, she simultaneously admires the soil’s arable potential and refers to the generosity of the earth willing to subject itself to the plow and to human industry, to yield a harvest that benefits humankind, provided it is treated with understanding and respect.

Sparked by my own acquaintance with a number of Willa Cather’s narratives, and fanned by my growing fascination with the Great Plains which also occupy a vast portion of Colorado, I finally fulfilled the long-held wish to make a literary pilgrimage to Red Cloud in October 2015. Thanks to the Willa Cather Foundation, it is possible to tour original sites and buildings important in the writer’s life which she immortalized in many of her stories, along with some of her contemporaries.

Willa Cather`s childhood home

Willa Cather`s bedroom in the unheated attic

The later Cather Family home. Willa wrote in the second floor bedroom whenever she visited Red Cloud.

Since nature plays such a prominent role in her work, I was profoundly moved by the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie. These 612 formerly overgrazed and herbicide-treated acres had, nonetheless, never been touched by a plow. Acquired by the Nature Conservancy in the 1970s, they were subsequently transferred to the Willa Cather Foundation. Located a short distance south of Red Cloud, they exemplify the successful restoration of a portion of original grassland. It is heartening to see a biome revert back to its original state, albeit only with a concerted effort. It took and still takes many hands to pull or burn invasive weeds and to reintroduce native grasses and wildflowers. Controlled intermittent grazing simulates the cyclical visitations by American bison when they still roamed vast regions of the continent.

Willa Cather Memorial Prairie

Like the pioneers who inhabited Willa Cather’s universe, the present-day caller is greeted by the picturesque prospect of rolling hills rippling in Nebraska’s relentless breeze. I am confident that she would embrace this natural treasure named in her honor. Just as we devotees want her stories and characters to live on, so should the landscape which gave them life.

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/04/20/ein-besuch-im-catherland/

Just Another City Park

One of the oldest “parks” in Colorado Springs is North Cheyenne Cañon. Ever since the founding of the city by General William Jackson Palmer in 1871, this local landmark has enjoyed great popularity among residents and visitors alike. The official park originated in 1885, when the city purchased 640 acres from Colorado College, and reached its current size of 1600 acres through a land donation by General Palmer in 1907, as well as later additions.

Starsmore Center

The park’s entrance is graced by the Starsmore Discovery Center. This massive stone house formerly served as the residence of the Starsmore family and stood a couple of miles east, at the corner of S. Nevada Avenue and Cheyenne Road, the location of a present day fast food chain. In a spectacular action, the entire 200 ton building was moved to its new home on a trailer in April 1990, and opened as the park’s main visitor center two years later, which was also when the Friends of Cheyenne Cañon nonprofit organization was created. This year, it celebrates its 25th anniversary — Happy Birthday, Friends!

North Cheyenne Cañon Road

A serpentine, newly re-paved road lined by giant Ponderosa Pines and Douglas Firs winds up the narrow canyon for nearly 3 miles, paralleling the course of North Cheyenne Creek to the foot of Helen Hunt Falls. These are named in honor of a famous writer who relocated from the East to Colorado Springs for its purported beneficial climate. More about this remarkable woman in a future post. Adjacent to the falls sits a log cabin, in operation as a second visitor center since 2013. It replaced a dilapidated predecessor, known as The Cub. This structure was associated with the nearby Bruin Inn, a retreat originally owned by Colorado College that has long since burned.

Helen Hunt Falls (in the background on the left) and Visitor Center

A small distance beyond this site, the pavement ends at the junction of the Gold Camp Road and High Drive, now a parking lot. The former was built as the railroad bed for the so-called Short Line, to transport gold mined in Cripple Creek at the back side of Pikes Peak, and destined for the processing mills in Old Colorado City. Once mineral extraction ceased to be profitable, the rails were removed and the gravel route became available to car traffic.

Junction of High Drive and Lower Gold Camp Road

Parking lot, often filled to capacity

Following the collapse of one of the railroad tunnels, the affected portion of the road was barred to cars, and reserved for horses, pedestrians, and bikers. When flooding washed out stretches of the High Drive, it, too, opened only for travelers on hoof, foot, or spokes. Owing to this rich past, North Cheyenne Cañon Park received special distinction in 2009, by being included on the National Register of Historic Places.

The attractive scenery is a magnet for outdoor enthusiasts. Miles of spurs branching off the Gold Camp Road and High Drive, combined with hiking opportunities in the canyon itself, result in a near-endless web of trails covering this mountainous margin of Colorado Springs. My husband and I have walked many of them, but keep gravitating to the Columbine Trail which begins at the lower trailhead west of the Starsmore Center, at an elevation of 6250 feet, and reaches the upper trailhead at an altitude of 7300 feet, after four miles. Southern exposure makes it one of the earliest, snow-free paths. Meandering in and out of copses of conifers and clusters of scrub oak, it affords glimpses of the Helen Hunt and Silver Cascade Falls, of the rock formations which rim the ravine, and of the vast expanse of the Great Plains to the east.

Columbine Trail

View of Silver Cascade Falls from the Columbine Trail

Looking east

Depending on the day, week, or month, the park may be crowded, and since we seek solitude, we avoid weekends, and other busy times. While breaking a sweat and feeling the blood course through our veins, we delight in the warm caresses of sunbeams, the rushing sounds of the creek, and the joyful songs of feathered tenants. Chickadees, nuthatches, jays, and towhees flit in and out of the trees, ravens and raptors soar overhead.

For years past, North Cheyenne Cañon has provided pleasures to seekers from near and far. This seeker hopes to find them there for many more in the future.

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/04/13/noch-so-ein-stadtpark/