Thursday, May 7, 2015

Mother's Day

Each year I intend to write something specifically for Mother's Day.  This year I finally did.  Don't worry, it won't be about apple pie and lullabies. My mother wasn't that kind of mother.  Come to think of it, I do have a good story about her pies, but first let me tell you about that silly goose sitting up there on the telephone pole.  The goose is what got me to thinking about 'Fran.'  So I'll switch to Fran right now (prodounced 'Fron' -- like any good Bostonion would pronounce it).

Fran was quite outspoken about the pronunciation of her name.  I was gathering family stories and telephoned two of her sister-in-laws in short order.  Both volunteered basically the same story.  Fran had just been picked up, I presume at a train station. As she settled into the car, she turned to her brother's new wife, Dotty, and said, "We'll get along much better if you remember to call me 'Fron.' A few days later I'm talking to Liz, the wife of my father's brother, and she also told me how Fran immediately laid down the law on the proper pronunciation of her name  ... so 'Fron' it is. 

It was 'Fron' for me too.  Once, just once, as a teenager I dared to call her "Mom."  Wham! She tripped me.  Down I went, mostly in jest.  The ground was soft and she knew it -- but I remembered well not to try that again.  My father was 'Hammy,' but I could sneak in a "Pop" once in awhile too. 

Back to the goose.  My mother was a wonderful naturalist and had a great curiosity.  If I'm looking under rocks, and pondering on the browse line in my back yard, it has a lot to do with her influence.  My father knew a great deal about nature too, probably more, but more of his came out of the books and scientific journals lining their study wall.  It always amazed me how he could pull a Latin name for a plant out of his head or know the exact range of a particular mouse.  Nature discussions with 'Hammy' were serious and in depth. 

It wasn't often I got to show my mother something in nature that surprised her -- but the goose did.  She was visiting us in Oregon and there, fifty feet or more above the ground was a Canada goose that had taken over an osprey nest for her own.  I still marvel when I see a goose nesting up there in the sky, but they do, and they seem to do just fine.  A friend sat for three days watching one of these high rise nests because he knew they were about to hatch.  Once the goslings are dry, the goose family needs to move on right away.  Geese don't feed their goslings; they take the babies to the food.  So these little guys have to jump to the ground within a day or two of hatching.  I've watched video of wood duck ducklings taking the flying leap.  It's a little like tossing cotton-balls overboard.  Fortunately the babies have a lot of down and their bones are soft.  Usually they bounce a little upon hitting the ground.

Fran looked up at that goose nest high over her head, on top of a broken off Douglas Fir, and said, "Well I'll be damned! and then she was speechless for a moment -- rare.
Here I am with one of our owls when it was a baby.

 As for pie, Fran made excellent pie, especially apple pie and mince pie..  She never made just one pie.  She'd make three or four and usually wanted at least one empty pie crust for the next chocolate pie or lemon meringue.  Unfortunately the empty shell was usually stored, uncovered on top of the cereal boxes on a high cabinet in the kitchen. All too often we shared the house with a great horned owl and that high perch was a favorite.  Owls don't eat piecrust, but they do nibble on it to see what it is, they walk on it, and occasionally poop on it.  Owl poop is rather chalky and easily brushed off.  Need I say more?

Fran's legendary pies came in handy when she needed a series of hawk biopsies to test for DDT.  Her study area was in Wisconsin.  She was studying how vole populations affected harrier (marsh hawk) populations and then became suspicious that DDT was decimating her harriers. The DDT test was very expensive, buts someone volunteered to trade --  a pie for each test.  As I remember the lab was in California.  How to air mail a pie to California and have it arrive in one piece? 

Fran would slip the pie into a nylon stocking and tie the ends of the stocking to the sides of the box.  The theory was the pie rode safely inside as if it was hanging in a hammock that always wanted to right itself, and safe from jarring.  The box was big, but fairly light.  Off it went airmail. I've always wished I could have talked to the guy in California. 

Should you happen to want to read more about my unusual parents I put together a collection of stories written by friends and family, "Hamerstrom Stories" -- available at  Or you could read some of the books written by my mother, Frances Hamerstrom.  My Favorites are "An Eagle to the Sky" and "My Double Life."

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Spring Morning: Red-winged Blackbirds

March 2015:  Chevy Pond, Douglas County

Don’t bother looking for ‘Chevy Pond’ on any map.  Chevy Pond is the name assigned to this dab of marsh by a local birder.  It lies across the road from a large, old log pond, Ford’s Pond.  

I start out chilled – car windows down.  Our car is parked at an uncomfortable slope on the edge of Chevy Pond.  Breakfast crumbs in my lap.  At least I have hot coffee in my mug.

 O.K.  Now for the magical part.  Sitting here is well worth a crooked back.  It is early morning.  This low marshy spot is a fog pocket.  Mist rises off dark water and swirls between last years tall cattail fronds and joins the fog hanging low over this valley.  The fog sucks the color from the cattails, the water, the green aquatic vegetation –everything.  Everything except the flashy red and yellow of a male red-winged blackbird’s epaulets. 

Dale and I have come five times in the past couple of weeks.  At first most of the males were still in flocks and those that sang out from the cattails had a simple song, “Danka Schoen.”  We haven’t heard that song today, only the more traditional, “Kleeeeee.” 

A guttural “Quoink” comes from within the cattails.  Ah ha!  Virginia rails are here too, but I doubt we’ll see one.  Out in the dab of open water I see four coot, a pair of mallards, and a pair of secretive pied-billed grebes slip from one sheltered spot to another. 

Magic time is when the sun rises high enough to rise above the pond’s far embankment and starts to burn off the morning fog.  Above me the fog thins and blue sky struggles to take over.  Color comes back to the ponds.  Cattails have a golden glow in the early light, spots of green show spring is coming, and the redwings become even blacker. 
“Kal leeee.”  A string of white breath floats out in the morning fog.  Black sporty male redwings sing out from cattails near and far.  Half a dozen are marking out their territories.  I don’t think many of the females have arrived, although one does fly in with a mouthful of soggy grasses.  She looks like a dark, overgrown sparrow, all streaky and brown.  She drops down into a tangle of cattails and soon I see one frond after another vibrating.  I wish I could actually see her as she pulls and tucks and weaves, making her nest.

A raven swoops in, probably hoping to rob a nest, but it is too early in the spring from him to find anything.  He is escorted out of the area by an irate redwing. 

I love sitting here for an hour or two, during the prime time of the morning.  Dale photographs and I sketch.  Eventually the sun wins.  Fog dissipates.  The redwing’s ardor dies down and food becomes their main interest.  Time for us to move on.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Walnut Ink

Double-crested Cormorant
I haven’t written a blog about art for a long time.  It is about time since I know several of my readers are artists. 

Earlier this past winter I was at our local duck pond when I found myself talking to a stranger and soon realized we were both artists.  Joan does a lot of her work with walnut ink.  She gave me a notecard painted with walnut ink and I knew immediately I wanted to try some.  The sweet lady immediately gave me a little container. 

I’ve tried several shades of brown ink in the past and none quite hit the mark.  Some were too red, too cool, too ……,.  I love the color of walnut ink.  It has a lovely rich brown.  It reminds me of antique drawings.  Upon reading about walnut I find many of the old drawings were originally drawn with a black ink and have now faded to the lovely dark brown I so admire. 
This ink is different from any ink I’ve tried.  It bleeds beautifully and also lifts more easily than any color I can remember trying.  By ‘lifting’ I mean you wet a little area and then blot, thus lifting some of the color off.  The three crossed hatched lines in the dark area of the sample were lifted off. 
In fact it lifts almost too easily.  The sea lions were one of my first experiments.  I used a pen first and then mostly smeared the ink with a wet brush.  I almost lost my lines! 
By the time I painted the fox I knew I wanted the detail, but I didn’t want to lose my lines, so I inked just a few lines, added washes with a brush and then went back and added more a pen.   

The ink is available from and from  Just search for ‘Walnut Ink.’  It says it is intended for pen (dip pen) or brush, but doesn’t say anything about using it in a fountain pen, so I haven’t dared to fill my fountain pen with walnut ink. It is a ‘pigmented ink’ and so probably doesn’t flow well in the fine mechanism of a fountain pen.  If anyone knows the answer to this I would be interested.
Hydriomena Moth
One last comment on the ink.  I always wonder how an ink or pigment will handle prolonged exposure to light.  Many of the cheap ball point pens and jell pens we buy fade terribly.  The bottle assures me it does not fade and my own light test did well too.  About three months ago I put a sample on my south facing windowsill and covered up half the sample.  I can’t say there has been a lot of sunshine during the past three months, but I see no sign of fading.