Author Archives: Lise Quintana

Angry Birds

I love birds. I don’t keep any in the house, because I also like cleanliness, quiet and the ability to travel. The more pets you have, the harder all those things become. But birds are also carriers of pests, they’re filthy and they die easily. So, the best solution to the problem of how to keep birds without the hassle of keeping birds is to have a ton of bird feeders on the front porch.

a baltimore oriole

For the longest time I thought these were goldfinches, but they’re too big and too orange. And they all have tiny little baseball bats.

I had run out of my usual bird feed – that mixture of millet, that thing that looks like millet but is a little larger and a little darker (and the birds hate it – they won’t touch it in one of the feeders) and black sunflower seeds that I usually stock the feeders with. It attracts orioles, juncos, jays, chickadees,  sparrows and all the other birds we have around here by the sackful.

This time, I decided to do something different. I bought a suet cake to put into the holder we already had. Normally, if  the feeders have stood idle for a while before I fill them again, it can take the birds a day or two to discover that the cafeteria has opened up again. The feeders weren’t empty, though. The birds, especially the orioles (which are my favorites because, in addition to being lovely, they have a very pleasing song). In fact, as my husband and I sat out enjoying the afternoon, the birds kept landing on the porch railing, then immediately retreating to the trees that surround the house and screeching at us to get out of their restaurant, couldn’t we see it was lunchtime? 

By evening, the suet cake had attracted two battling bird herds (I know that’s not the collective term for birds, but get your own blog if you want to be fussy about it). Steller’s Jays on the one side, orioles on the other. Sadly, the orioles have no advantages whatsoever. There aren’t quite as many of them, they’re smaller, quieter, and more polite. The jays come in like Anthony Michael Hall in everything he’s done since 1990, squawking and throwing their weight around and making pests of themselves. I’m sitting in my office facing the window that looks out on the feeders, and the suet holder hasn’t stopped swinging. No sooner does one bird leave than another one jumps on. What is it about kidney fat that drives birds into a raging, furious feeding frenzy?


Let Sleeping Creatures Lie

I’m here getting ready for the trip up to San Francisco, and the little doggies are bored, so I took them for a little perambulation down the driveway. It’s a fabulous day out, the sun dappling the driveway through the beautiful trees, the creek burbling a few yards away, and as the doggies walked up and down the driveway sniffing and peeing on things, I examined the work done by the landscaping guys. They had cut out enormous amount of periwinkle starting to overgrow the walkway on the high side of the driveway. There are tons of rat holes along the hill between our house and the neighbor’s. Normally obscured by the ground cover, the rats live their little ratty lives and do their little ratty thing.

The sudden denuding of the landscape must have confused the rats. Behind the hay bales that keep the mud from washing into our driveway, there was an enormous rat. It was curled up in the humus, sleeping peacefully. Now, I’m normally not a violent person, but when you’ve lived with wood rats for a while, you realize that any means are justified by the end of eradicating the rat population. Rats harbor all sorts of illnesses, including rabies and bubonic plague. Left unchecked, they’ll eat your insulation, your electrical wiring and set your house on fire. I have reason to believe that rats are capable of stealing your online passwords, taking your identity, and using it to establish large offshore accounts for which you will bear the responsibility of paying taxes. They’re horrible.

This particular specimen was 8 inches long, not counting the foot-long naked pink tail, and had a lot of fur. It had a teddy bear look about it, but I couldn’t let that influence me. I’m not a violent person, as I say, but I’m also not the teddy bear type. I pointed to it and got that high-pitched excited voice people use with animals and said “Hey, Dagmar! Come and get it!”

Dagmar came up looking carefully through the brush. I know that dogs are supposed to have a keen sense of smell, but it seems to me that when they are sniffing something out, they sort of shut off their eyes, because I could see the rat clear as daylight, but the dogs snuffled all around it before they finally sniffed right at it.

You would think that a rat might freak out at realizing that it was at the mercy of a bloodthirsty homeowner and two dogs whose favorite game is snap-back (where they pick up something, shake it, and hear its backbone snap). Except for one thing. These dogs are motivated by tiny furry things that run, squeak in terror and generally look frightened. This particular rat was curled up asleep, and my shouting and the dogs’ sniffing didn’t seem to give it any reason to interrupt its nap. Dagmar lost interest and wandered off, but Esme wanted in on the game now. She went right up to the rat and picked it up, giving it a few shakes and a chomp on the spine. That sort of treatment normally works on mice and smaller rats, but this one just looked up at her with a hurt expression on its face.

When the dogs were puppies and we were trying to get them interested in the dog sport of rat killing, they approached the rats cautiously. They would snap in a rat’s direction, then jump back. Since they’ve hit adulthood, though, rat killing has become efficient. I’ve never seen a second of hesitancy or fear in those dogs. Until they came to this enormous sleeping rat.

Bite. Jump. Sniff. Bite. Jump. Sniff. Sniff. Jump. Bite. Sniff. Sniff. Jump. Sniff.

Esme got bored and wandered off because I still had the treats in my hand and cut up hot dogs are far more interesting than a rat that doesn’t squeak or run. Dagmar, on the other hand, finally decided that the now-sodden and bloody teddy bear was worth her time. By the time I persuaded her to lay off, the poor thing was going stiff.

There are lots of interesting things about living out in the woods. The smell of horses drifting down the hill from the ranch across the way, the little roads that crawdads make along the creek bottom, the way you can turn a corner and be confronted with the kind of views most people only know from movies like Lord of the Rings – all those are reasons why we live here. I guess we take the disgusting with the majestic.

Spring Planting

It’s that time of year. Time to plant those bare root fruit trees, get those spring bulbs into the ground. You can tell that it’s that time of year, because it’s criminally cold out. 

Me, in most of the clothes I own

And under this, I'm wearing long underwear.

This is what’s necessary to go out into the front yard. Long sleeves, thermal vest, a hat. I gathered all the potting soil I own, my shovels, my bucket that contains my trowels, pruning shears and gloves, and headed out front.

We’ve got two kinds of bulbs. One are the big, double-blooming tulips, the other are the bulbs from the little tiny blue tulips we planted last year. Last year was my first year planting bulbs, and I didn’t realize it, but bulbs sprout other tiny little bulbs in the course of their bulb lives. By the time I dug them up some time in May or June, we had about twice as many as we had originally planted, and a lot of them were teeny little green-onion looking things.

Here are the bulbs we've kept in a bucket since last year

The hairy parts are the roots, and some have already started to sprout.

When the landscapers were creating the flagstone walkway, they asked us what we were going to do with an old rowboat we got from the Pirate’s mother. I said we were going to throw it out, but the horrified look he gave me let me know that if we didn’t do something with it, he would take it off our hands. He finally persuaded me to plant flowers in it.

It’s a tiny little rowboat, built by the Pirate’s uncle to paddle around the canals of Venice, California. It was only ever meant to carry one person, and was small enough for a single man to carry on his back the block or two from his house to the canals, paddle through the canals toward Ballona Creek, carry from the canal to the creek, and then paddle out into Marina del Rey. He called the boat “Luff,” and now, over 40 years later, it’s sitting in our side yard, filled with potting soil, compost, loose dirt and flower bulbs.

Luff on the banks of Bear Creek

Luff, filled with tulip bulbs, permanently beached on the banks of Bear Creek

One last thing. You may think to yourself: That’s a lovely sentiment, but how are you going to keep that watered? Aren’t the San Lorenzo valley communities constantly in the middle of some kind of water crisis? Well, that’s where another reminder of the Pirate’s past comes in.

1100-gallon cistern used to capture rainwater

This is Cistern Joseph Ann, and she will never whack your knuckles with a ruler.

Our 1,100-gallon cistern captures rainwater, which comes from the roof and flows into two 75-gallon rain barrels that then feed into Cistern Joseph Ann, which gives us a total capacity of 1,250 gallons. It takes about 3-4 days of steady rain to fill the entire 1,250-gallon system, which then lasts us about two and a half months of garden watering. Now that the landscaping is done, we’re going to be putting in a vegetable patch on one side of the walkway – a kitchen garden. But first, we’re thinking that we might add another 1,100-gallon cistern, nearly doubling our storage capacity. Maybe it can be my turn to immortalize someone important to me, and we can name it after my aunt: Cistern Rosie.

Whoa. What Just Happened?

We lost power at our house on Wednesday afternoon.

We felt pretty smug about it. After all, we’ve been doing Day Without Electricity for years now, and we know how to get along without. When the power hadn’t been restored by Thursday morning, the little kid was allowed to skip a shower before she was whisked off to school. Thursday morning we were still having an adventure for which we were totally prepared. We felt alternately sorry for everyone around us whose generators were running full-blast (using expensive propane), because they were so pathetically dependent on their electricity to maintain their lifestyles, and smug about our own ability to maintain our comfort. We went about our Thursday business with the confidence of those who know that they are superior to their fellow-humans, but are magnanimous enough not to rub it in.

Thursday night, we heated huge vats of hot water on the stove and put them into the shower, everyone in the family took turns doing the sponge bath dance. Not optimal, but better than nothing. The kid did her homework by the strong, warm light of the kerosene lamps, and we had a hot, home-cooked meal that involved vegetables. We had no internet, and by Thursday night, I could feel myself getting testy. A little bit grumpy. Sorta put-out.

Even though the power was still out on Friday, the kid had to go to school. The Pirate and I ended up driving into San Jose because we had work to do that required internet access and it just couldn’t wait any longer. As we drove back home after lunch, the Pirate and I both said out loud that we were sure that the power would still be out when we got home, although I know that I personally was hoping with every cell in my body that it would be back. I almost cried when we got home and it was still down.We took the little kid over the hill to spend the weekend at her dad’s house, and did the same thing driving back home – saying out loud that we knew the power would still be out, pointing out to each other the fact that there were no lights visible for most of our drive, by still secretly wishing wholeheartedly that we were wrong, and that our power was back on. It wasn’t.

Saturday morning, still no power. At this point, the Pirate and I have decided to do that thing that we almost never do – start up the generator. We do have one. It’s in a box about the size of a loveseat, and sits on a concrete pad out back. It’s the biggest generator we know of, and could easily power our house and those of our neighbors for as long as our 1,000-gallon propane tank held out. The Pirate started it up while I was inside doing other things, and the sight of the ceiling fans whirring to life was momentarily heartening.

And then the generator died.

When I realized that not only did we have no power, but we had no power, my smug abandoned me, and I just felt depressed. I briefly considered just going to bed and burrowing in and waiting out the outage. After all, I have a nice down comforter on my bed, and after a while, it’s comfy-cozy in there, right? Except that the room is dark (it’s been gloomy out) and I can’t do anything like read the stuff I have to cover for grad school or anything. Not only that, but there were plenty of outside chores that needed doing, like digging our driveway out of knee-high leaves.

We went out to a party Saturday evening, and as we left our house, we were gratified to see that the power had been restored to downtown Boulder Creek. Power was creeping closer to our house! It would only be a matter of hours now! On our way home, I noticed just how much power our neighborhood uses – lights on in businesses that were closed – no one needed that power! Why did they have it and just waste it? It felt so unfair! We drove home slowly, noting that now, the houses on our street had power. Every house we could see from the street with lights on was a reason for our hearts to lift just a little more.

The lights stopped half a mile from our house. As I walked into the freezing-cold house (it was in the 30s outside, and maybe 50 inside), I wondered how long without electricity it would take before we made the mental shift from “we can live without” to “we do live without.” When we got home, I decided that I was tired of going to bed all bundled up, trying to read my textbooks by candlelight – I’m no Abraham Lincoln. Instead, we watched videos on my laptop, sitting in the blue glow of its tiny screen, feeling desperately normal.

This morning, at 1:23 by my clock, we were awakened by the lights coming on, and after switching them back off, I slept more soundly than I have in days. We’ve now done an entire month’s worth of days without electricity, and I personally am looking forward to living the modern lifestyle for a while.

It's an arch in the stupa style, but when I was choosing among various design drawings, I judged by holding them up under my nose to see which was the most badass.

The creator of our awesome deck moustache

It started with the idea that we were going to sell our house. We put together a formidable list of things we had to do in order to get the house sold – things like fixing the tiling by the fireplace, putting cabinet doors in the kitchen where we took out the microwave, and especially clearing the brush coming up the driveway. We had a jungle of blackberries that obscured the view of the creek and made getting around the side of the house impossible, and the trees were overgrown and threatening to fall over.

We had a guy come in and clear the brush. He did a spectacular job, and although we thought he was done, he didn’t. He decided that we needed a nice path leading from the stairs that came off the deck around to the front of the house. I had thought the same thing, but our ideas were a little different. I thought I’d put a nice border of river rock and pour some gravel. He thought he would put in 2-foot high walls, clad them in river rock, and then lay flagstone in the path. He won.

We have a nice, clear view, we have a lovely path leading from the back to the front of the house…and now I wanted an archway that would frame the view from the deck! This is Big Rob, and although the arch isn’t quite finished, you can see how lovely it’s going to be, framing our view of the creek. When the constellation Sam Elliott comes out, I want this to be his moustache, framed against the night sky. It’ll be spectacular.

Stomach Upset

This is my dog Esme. She’s one of two rat terriers at our house, the other one being Dagmar. Esme is the one that everyone seems to respond to. She’s delicate-boned, beautifully colored, and mostly bald. Sadly, Esme has color dilution alopecia. It’s a hereditary condition that means that she has no hair and a host of other health problems.

The thing I want you to pay attention to is not the sight of my dog eating a bully stick. It’s the sound of my dog’s nonstop gutteral growl as she macks down on the thing. Picture this (or just watch the video): a dog only slightly larger than a chihuahua, a dog who is pink over most of her body, gnawing on a hank of skin and growling like an upset stomach.

Seriously, if it weren’t so weird, I might be a little embarrassed by it.

The days are getting colder. Cold enough that the Pirate turned on the heat. Cold enough that we realized with horror that the entire summer is gone and we’d forgotten to order firewood early enough to get a really good price for it. (Darn!) Cold enough that I’ve gotten my bin of gloves and hats out from under the bed and moved it to a shelf by the bedroom door where they’re reachable on my way out.

One of the main challenges of Day Without Electricity is keeping warm when the weather turns chilly. It’s a constant issue, but one we feel we’re doing okay with. Really, it comes down to stuffing the woodstove full of burning wood, and wearing enough socks. So, you can imagine our dismay when we realized that there was a creature in the chimney.

Our beloved wood stove, and its surrounding mess

How We Keep Warm

When there are no other buzzing, humming, beeping noises to distract you from the blissful silence of the woods, the sound of a something banging against the metal stovepipe are not just ominous – they’re really loud. All night, the clicking sound of sharp little claws on metal. The rasp of fur against metal. The dull, hollow thump of a nose looking for a way out. And, of course, the near-rabid barking of the little doggies, who wanted nothing better than to rocket themselves up that chimney and rid us of whatever chimney monsters we might have. And they could do it, too, I have no doubt, if only the chimney were conveniently horizontal. But that’s the trick, isn’t it? Sadly for both us and the creature, the chimney is mostly vertical, narrow, and only an exit if you’re made of smoke.

Of course, the first thing I did was to call the company that normally does our chimney cleaning. They always send an enterprising, engaging and completely filthy man out to our place when the chimney gets its regular spring clean, and we know from experience that he’s not the type of guy to let a dead creature in the chimney phase him in the least. I figured that he could open the chimney and let the creature out, the doggies could dispatch it, and we’d be home free.

Except that they didn’t get back to me. By mid-afternoon, I couldn’t take it anymore. I was thinking to myself that if they didn’t hurry, we wouldn’t have to worry about getting a live creature out of the chimney. By mid-afternoon, the Pirate and I decided to take matters into our own hands and take apart the chimney ourselves. Like a lot of homeowners, I was a little freaked out about taking apart a thing upon which we depend, but I was more freaked out about the thing in the chimney.

The trick was taking apart the chimney. It’s airtight, and it has a kink in it. We took all the screws out and couldn’t budge the thing. It’s possible that the chimney was the most solidly-built part of the whole house (ask me about our exciting wiring sometime!). Here’s the hot tip: the places where the chimney angles up toward the ceiling swivel. After careful jiggling and some knocking with fists (the cure for many mechanical ills), we managed to get the chimney loose. I was fully prepared for a small raccoon or a large rat to fall out, but…


We looked up inside, and still nothing.

Turns out, whatever horrible creature is driving our dogs crazy, it’s actually nesting in the attic. Aaaaaaarrrrrrgh! For this, I am NOT taking the DIY route. There are professionals who do this sort of thing for a living, and they’re not me.

On the bright side, I’ve now dispatched my fear of the fireplace. If anything in the future goes wrong with our chimney, our flue, the firebox, etc., I know exactly how to deal with it. It’s *almost* worth it.

KoolAid Honey

A couple of days ago, I noticed a couple of bees hanging around the hummingbird feeder. I wondered why they were all over the feeder rather than the impatiens or fuschias planted right underneath the feeders, but if you’ve ever tried to question an animal about its motives, you’ll know that they can bee pretty tight-lipped. Because they don’t have lips.

Yesterday, there were a few more bees. Four or five, buzzing around the part of the feeder where the hummingbirds stick their big ol’ snouts. I thought it was weird and I took a snap with my cell phone and did a Twitter post about it. Today, I got home and found that, not only had the bees half-emptied the hummingbird feeder in a single day, but as I stood there watching, the feeder did that bubbly thing that water coolers do when you draw a glass of water. I went out to look, and more than a dozen bees crowded around the opening of the feeder. As they drank, they would become so laden with the nectar that they would drop off the cluster and fall into space until they could catch themselves and fly back. I looked online and found out why bees need to top up on sugar right before winter. I’m excited because the Pirate and I are looking at starting beekeeping soon, and knowing that we already have a thriving, growing hive, and that we’re already doing all the right things to keep that hive healthy feels really good.

Bees are cool.