The King of Isabelle Avenue

I decided to take the NaNoWriMo challenge this year. When I told some friends at work the first thing they said was – “You’re finally gonna write that book about your dad – right?”

This is my pop as a clean-cut marine – with really big ears.

My father was the only son of one of the best story-tellers who ever lived on Isabelle Avenue in downtown Las Vegas. My Grandmother could tell you the story of her trip to the supermarket and it would be enthralling. She had a sense of exactly what details would captivate her audience. She loved the attention and we loved the stories. I always imagined Pop growing up in her shadow and wanting to have the biggest story.

The oddest thing about this photo is that we never saw things like this as even slightly odd.

I was in about 4th grade when I discovered that most of the stories Pop told lacked the ring of truth. He exaggerated details and added “facts” of his own choosing to make things seem both more fantastic and more believable. What Pop never understood was that his life was really the big story. The man pulled off some crazy things. Absurd, irreverent, silly, bizarre – he was all of these things – almost all the time.

I’m sure your dad could be found fighting a goat in buckskins on any given Saturday.

In truth, my pop was a complex person. He never grew up, he never wanted to – Peter Pan in all his glory. His escapades were fueled with Budweiser and a group of strange and wonderful friends who were all to willing to follow him on his journey like a modern-day pied piper.

I’m sure your dad drank moonshine from a crockery jug while wearing a bear claw necklace on your family vacations – don’t all dads?

What I want this project to be is fun and ironic – this is not an examination of the difficulties of living with Pop’s idiosyncrasies. I want this to be an exploration of the irony, the wonder, even the tenderness of a man who marched to the beat of his own drum (or maybe his own tuba).

If you would like to follow my progress, I’ll be posting excerpts and chronicling my experiences trying to pump out those 50,000 words on my new blog The King of Isabelle Avenue – I’d love to hear your comments. As of today there is nothing there but the About page that this post is based upon. I plan to start posting in earnest tomorrow!

Come along with me – there’s a good story in it. I should know, I come from a long line of story tellers.

A Solemn Spot in the Woods

This weekend I took a long hike deep into the woods. A couple of miles in I encountered this:

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This place was special to someone, a place of peace and meditation. A long line of prayer flags, decades old, hangs suspended from the trees.

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The first time I saw them they reminded me of my Grandma’s clothes line.

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I don’t follow the faith of the person who placed these flags, but as I stand on the side of a mountain looking through them I think I experience the same sense of awe.

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This is a place that makes me thing of something bigger than myself….

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I feel grateful standing on this place for all the wonders around me.

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I am warmed by the sun and cooled by the breeze. The sunlight animates everything I see.

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I stand in this spot and offer praise to my God.

Mary Jane Looks to the Future

I’ve made some posts of the adventures of Mary Jane. She’s smart, she’s spry, she’s 99, and she cares about the future. Specifically she cares about the future of a small piece of the Ozarks.

Mary Jane’s parents settled in the area north of Eureka Springs around 1915. Her grandparents already had a small farm in town and her great uncle was a recluse down in a hollow near the railroad tracks. Her father and his sister bought a large tract of land east of the White River. Mary Jane’s father once told her that owning land meant you would never be broke. You could always sell a few acres. Over the decades Mary Jane has bought and inherited hundreds of acres, and as her family needs have changed she has sold some.

The largest sale came in the late 50s when Mary Jane’s daughter was in high school. She sold her favorite parcel to a developer. She sold because the power company was bringing electricity to the area, her house was on the wrong side of the highway and her high-school-aged daughter desperately wanted to have power. She had been raised in a home where you carried water and lived by candlelight. She built a small home in the area where power was coming and moved to improve the lives of her family.

At the time Mary Jane had no idea what a development would be. She had sold to farmers and neighbors in the past. Today there is a golf course community and 1500 people living on that lovely tract of land where her beloved dogwood forest once stood. This experience has helped to shape her views on land use. It’s not that the development was bad or unrealistic, it’s that there was a sea change in how land was being used. This ignited a desire in her to see that the development stop at the current line of her property.

Since the 1970s she has been more cautious about who she sells land to. She has filled the hollows and hills with people she knows will love the land like she does. More importantly she has made sure that an entire hollow will remain just as it is forever. She has worked with the Ozark Regional Land Trust to create the Oak Hill Wildlife Preserve and Land Trust.

Once a year we meet with someone from ORLT who will verify conservation easements and go over stewardship plans with us. As a long time resident I’m included in these sessions, as a lover of this land I’m thrilled to come along and get the finer details from Mary Jane.

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This year we met with Preston, a smart young man who has a passion for land preservation and who made sure to make Mary Jane feel like he took every concern seriously. Here he goes over a 50-year-old map with Mary Jane that shows an accurate survey.

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Maps are all good and well, but going to the boundary points is crucial, Mary Jane’s memory is amazing. She can walk across a field and take you directly to a survey marker that she has not looked at in decades. Here she just barrels across a field towards the point.

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She pointed out a line where the corners of “the 40” should converge. Old school surveying was based on 40 acre tracts. Corners are marked with metal posts, rock piles, or witness trees.

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Here we are walking one of the lines. This was a really uneven area and Mary Jane reluctantly accepted some help as she walked the side of that 40.

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This find was somewhat disconcerting for me. This is an illegal camouflaged deer feeder six feet from the the property line. Hunting is illegal on the land trust, but it’s also prohibited in the development – I’m have no issue with hunting, but hunting without permission on land like this is incredibly dangerous. Over by the line I found a carbon shafted arrow. People hike and children play in this field. People’s homes are in the line of sight of this. It’s not safe, it’s not legal.

At this point we moved on to a hike into the actual land trust. This part was a little sad for me. Until a couple of years ago Mary Jane took these hikes with us. Physically she could still do it, but with her failing eyesight it’s just not safe anymore. She knows this hollow in a way that I can only compare with the way I remember the cracks in the sidewalk out in front of my childhood home. Not having her with us was sad, even so it was wonderful to be in her favorite place.

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This is the trail as we enter into the hollow. We walk along the remnants of an old logging road.

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Much of the woods are what I call a “beautiful tangle” – vines, saplings, leaves, fallen limbs.

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This is all that is left of an old Volvo parked a quarter mile into the woods sometime in the 70s. I know it sounds odd, but an old gold Volvo was a landmark for us. Turn right to see the pivot rock, go down to see the waterfall, keep left to see the spring. The owner of the Volvo was an old friend of many of my neighbors, he passed away a couple of years ago. The Volvo was full of personal items. It was Jim’s storage unit. Over the years hikers had stopped to look inside. There’s a story of a lady who found a chandelier inside. Tools, fixtures, antiques – one time my nephews carried out a huge french-fry cutter. Jim told me to keep it and its mounted in my kitchen to this day. After his death friends hung prayer flags over the Volvo. His son had been to visit it. It wasn’t natural, but we had all come to love it. About a year ago we discovered that it was gone. Probably stolen for scrap, prayer flags and all. I can’t even imagine the work it took to get that thing out of the woods. We all miss it and will likely leave the spare here as a marker.

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We continued down the trail towards the easement. The woods here are thick and this time of year the light through the trees can be stunning.

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A rich carpet of leaves about a foot thick blanketed the forest floor.

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The dogwoods in the hollow are starting to change – just the slighted turn towards red.

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Francie, an old friend of Mary Jane, owns a small piece of land inside the trust. It’s on a conservation easement and part of the process is verifying that these easements are in compliance. Francie owns a small spring and its a wonderful sanctuary for her. She comes twice a year to spend time there. It’s always going to be a peaceful place. Here Preston and Francie work their way to the spring.

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Dogwood leaves in the afternoon sunlight.

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Color through cedars. I should point out that I shot everything today with my fast prime lens – a Leica 25mm 1.4 – the equivalent of a fast 50. It let me isolate objects like these cedars. It’s not the greatest for the trail shots, but at least I get lots of detail.

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Leaves on the ground.

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Leaf in the sky.

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Seeds…

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Limbs…

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Burls…

These shots are from a special place along the trail. This was Mary Jane’s playground. She tells stories of playing in between the “pancake rocks” and imagining that it was a fort, or a pirate ship, or a carousel…

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I can just see her playing and climbing on these rocks. I would have loved to have had a place like this as a child…

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Climbing, playing, finding wonder in what nature gave her.

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I love the way the moss grows on the sides of the pancake rocks.

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Reds

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A look back down the hollow.

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This leaf was huge – over a foot across.

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I laid it on an old washtub I found near an abandoned wickiup back in the hollow. Throughout the 70s there were young people who lived back in this hollow. Some children were even born back here. Mary Jane loved to have people who enjoyed the land there and they still come back to see it from time to time.

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A look up…

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Off the trail…

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A relic of an earlier time…

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Sunlight…

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Deep woods…

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Dogwoods playing their last song before winter…

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Bent color….

All in all a glorious day in the hollow. My land abuts this amazing place. Thanks to Mary Jane I never have to worry about condos looking up at my mountaintop. Our trip yesterday got her a bit fired up. Some markers are not quite right, some boundaries need to be redefined, some calls need to be made. The whole day made me think about what an amazing gift she has given not just to us, but to those who will come a century after us. Remote, undeveloped, real nature. Over 160 acres of it left to the flying squirrels, the owls, and the dogwoods – forever.

A Feel-Good Post

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I read an article a while back about the ratio of the eyes to the overall size of the head as it pertains to baby mammals. There is something about that proportion that affects us when we look at it.

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It causes a chemical reaction in our brains – serotonin is released. Just looking at babies makes us makes us feel good. This is a biological response that helps us bond with a newborn. Looking into it’s eyes gives us a feeling similar to falling in love.

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The interesting thing is that it doesn’t need to be a human baby, any mammal will do. When you think about it it makes a lot of sense. It’s why we visit the shelter and develop “puppy amnesia” – looking into those big eyes makes us forget all about housebreaking, destroyed slippers, and sleepless nights.

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Our biology makes them almost impossible to resist. It’s why we smile and coo when we see a baby in a stroller, or why we bend down to pet a puppy on a leash. Our affect changes as does our vocal inflection. We make ourselves approachable and safe.

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Our brains don’t have the same reaction when we look at non-mammals, this young emu doesn’t prompt the same feeling. It’s interesting, it’s cute in an ugly sort of way, but I’m not wanting to take it home.

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Perhaps all this current political strife could be simply and quickly solved. Instead of attack ads and sound bytes, maybe candidates should just run commercials made up of their baby pictures, or their kids baby pictures, or pictures of random puppies and kittens.

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It wouldn’t fix the economy or put us on a path to world peace, but it might make us feel good.

On the Street Where I Live – Indian Summer Sunshine

Today about midday I headed out with my camera to take in some color on my own street. I don’t live on a traditional street, I live on a CR – a County Road. It’s a four-mile stretch of unpaved road that weaves it’s way up to the top of Pine Mountain outside of Eureka Springs, Arkansas. I’ve been watching the leaves change day by day – but leaving for work in the early morning and returning at dusk has given me few opportunities to capture the color during the week.

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As I looked up today I was reminded of a professor I studied painting under in college. Rita Abbey – she was always talking about transparencies – layers of colors over other colors…

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Layers that allowed you to see other colors through them. Although I saw her technique as something more graphic and abstract at the time, today I believe I saw it in nature…

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Yellow hickories, backed up by red maples, layered over orange sassafras…

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All of it looking so translucent over a perfectly clear Indian Summer sky…

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In school I saw Rita’s technique as a way to make us dissect space and interpret it in a new way, and maybe it was…

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But today I saw something beyond technique or exercise, I saw nature layered in a way that made solids look translucent. Light and shadow creating shapes superimposed over the surfaces of the leaves…

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Today I saw a work of art as I looked up into the sky. All I had to do was to capture it inside a rectangle.

Autumn in the Ozarks – Red

You can tell when the peak is coming – the reds start to show themselves.

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Maples, sassafras, dogwoods – all putting on the ritz and setting the stage for the finale.

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Greens are still common, but the coming of the first reds signal the big finish.

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Today was an Indian Summer day – warm and sunny. A wonderful time to walk through the woods.

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Are you seeing red in your neck of the woods yet?

Automne dans les Aux Arcs – C’est Orange!

Ok – so I don’t speak French. I took three years in high school and struggled through it. One day my teacher, Madame Sprott commented on my sweater – “Oooooo! C’est orange!” It’s been stuck in my head for over 30 years. Whenever I hear the word “orange” I can still hear her voice as she noted the color of my sweater. It was the kindest thing she ever said to me. She was pretty ambivalent about me, but that sweater…..I digress. Sorry.

Orange is a color that moves me. I feel invigorated in an orange room. I like orange clothes. It’s a color that I don’t just see, I feel it.

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The maples and sassafras go through an orange stage on the way to red, but orange looks best on them.

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There’s a perfect shade of orange that happens just before brown. The sunshine makes it sing.

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Orange in the sunlight makes my soul sing.

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Don’t miss out on the orange, it’s here and then it’s gone.