Thursday, July 31, 2008

Nailed again!

I'm getting the hang of this. Last night I cut down the distance from the Bushnell motion-detector game camera to the bird feeder to 20 feet, and the result was much better than that of the other night. Shortening the range by another five feet ought to yield a perfect photo. Incidentally, when the deer came back to finish the job of gently emptying the feeder, he discovered he had company. There was no skunk scent this morning, so perhaps the two species enjoy some kind of cease-fire agreement.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Bruno the Bear comes calling at a neighbor's

So we city folk visiting the shore of Lake Superior feel besieged by skunks that haven't yet fired their howitzers, by deer that vandalize our bird feeders, by bears that leave tracks on the beach. That's chump change compared to what happened to a neighbor of ours, a native Upper Michigander, the other night.

She writes in an e-mail:

"I went up to bed last night and after a bit realized I'd not closed one of the sliding doors on the deck. Since it's been cool at night and our bird's cage is right there, I went down and shut the door. Not an hour later I heard a heck of a ruckus, so went back downstairs to investigate. I had my hand on the doorknob to look out when it dawned on me that the motion light was on."

Instead of going out, she continued, she looked out the window and saw that her husband's humongous "Tim Allen arrh arrh arrh Man Grill" was tipped over on the deck. "I can hardly roll this thing," she said. "Forget about tipping it!"

She continued:

"I flipped the deck lights on to discover my concrete bird bath in a pile of pieces, a custom-made wrought-iron heavy-duty shepherd's hook and a store-bought one, both mounted on the deck, bent toward the ground like licorice whips. The bird feeders that had been hanging from them were gone. Another feeder that was screwed to the deck rail was also gone.

"The deck where the shepherd's hooks were is at least four feet off the ground. To reach up, pull those hooks over and bend them required one honking size bear."

The next morning she also discovered trampled shrubbery and claw marks on the deck railing.

"I find this odd," she continued, for "last week when there was a bear in the yard, the bird sent up a warning call. Last night Bruno was on the deck, on the other side of the glass from her, and not a sound. Was she scared stiff?

"What if I hadn't slid that door shut? Would he have come through the screen? The bird cage is right there, complete with a smorgasbord of tasty nuts, fruits and seeds. It hasn't bothered me to have bears in the yard, but tromping around on the deck? I can't tell you how often we've slept with those doors open. Not anymore!"

Suddenly hungry deer and small skunks that mind their own business don't seem like such a hazard in this neck of the woods.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


It's gloomy, it's grainy, it's greenish -- but we got 'im! The deer that has been having its way with our bird feeder tried again last night, but the new Bushnell game camera was waiting. Now to call the sheriff and arrange a lineup of the usual suspects . . . At least we know the camera works and that its electronic flash is wimpy but still powerful enough to identify miscreants of the forest. Hmm, won't this be a useful device for a mystery novel?

Monday, July 28, 2008

Skunked again. (Well, not quite.)

I complained Saturday that our yard at the Writer's Lair on Lake Superior was Grand Central for a variety of animals, but in the dark. Almost as if to answer that, the cabin property has become a daytime Penn Station for skunks. All that is missing are little fedoras and little briefcases as the critters commute back and forth in their little black and white office suits.

The folks in town told us the other day that there has been a skunk population explosion in the last couple of years, but there's nothing one can do except keep garage and shed doors closed and a weather eye out for the creatures. One friend of ours captured a particularly chummy specimen in a Havahart humane trap and took it for a ride deep into the woods. (If the trap is small enough the skunk can't lift its tail to spray.)

Last evening we were sitting on the backyard deck with aperitifs and canapes when a skunk ambled around the corner of the cabin. Quickly we shooed Hogan the yellow half-Lab inside before he could spot it and charge. The skunk trotted on and disappeared into the woods. A few minutes later he re-emerged, heading straight for us, and after a quick grabshot with the camera (at right) we shooed ourselves into the cabin until the skunk disappeared into the other side of the woods.

The skunk probably never saw us; we simply had occupied the space he was heading for. Their eyesight is very poor, although their hearing and noses are acute.

Living with skunks is not difficult, if you give them plenty of space and keep the dog on a leash. Whenever we go outside, we make like base runners taking a long lead off second, keeping our heads on a swivel, watching for that subtle flash of black and white out of the corners of our eyes.

We also prepare for the worst. The old remedy is a gallon or so of tomato juice (we once used two small cans of V-8 on a skunked dog, and it worked) but the modern medicine consists of a mixture of of a quart of hydrogen peroxide, one-third of a cup of baking soda, and a teaspoon of dish detergent. You mix and use the stuff on the spot, leaving it on the dog (or yourself, if you were so unlucky) for five minutes. If if you try to keep the potion, it'll explode like liquid Semtex. So far we haven't had occasion to use it, but you never know.

Once in a while we'll get a whiff of skunk, but always from a distance, often from roadkill. They don't fire the artillery until they are mortally threatened.

In a sense living in the woods with skunks is like living in the city with diversity. One might grumble at the habits of exotic peoples but one learns to tolerate them -- and hope that they'll tolerate us, too.

Saturday, July 26, 2008


It never fails: A watched pot never boils. A watched yard never teems.

All summer the beach in front and the yard in back of the Writer's Lair has been Grand Central for deer, bear, skunk, squirrels, goldfinches, gulls, geese and cedar waxwings, among other Upper Michigan wildlife species. The deer and bear show up mostly in the dark, however. We can tell because of the tracks they leave.

So I bought (from Cabela's, the big sportsman's outfitter) a digital "game camera" to strap to a tree and capture night-riding creatures.

The Bushnell Trail Sentry is a cool little device, especially for only $99, plus a few more bucks for four D-cell alkaline batteries and a SD card to store the photos on. It takes 4-megapixel photos that are remarkably sharp and detailed although a little flat, but they can be perked up with Photoshop on the computer.

Using it is simplicity itself. One opens it up, turns it on, enters a password (you wouldn't want strange hikers messing with it) and tells it to take either still photos or 14-second-long videos. If a warm-blooded animal walks through the arc of the infrared sensor, the camera will wake up and take a photo (with built-in flash at night) every 30 seconds.

I've had it on a tree pointing at the Writer's Lair for the last three nights, but not one wild animal has deigned to pass by, even though we've left up the previously violated bird feeder to attract hungry critters.

All I have to show for my efforts are photos of a big yellow dog (Hogan) going out to pee and a fat white man (me) watching to see if the camera is working. It is, but . . .


Meanwhile, there are some daytime wildlife shots at my other blog.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Jerome Holtzman

One of my culture heroes died the other day. Jerome Holtzman was 82 years old.

Jerry was one of the greatest baseball writers of all time -- in fact, he's in the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown. For decades he was every Chicago Sun-Times editor's go-to guy when it came to smoking out obscure historical facts about the game. In his long career he came to be known as "The Dean" by his fellow scribes, and his name was hallowed in every barbershop in Chicago and a few other city-states besides.

I remember him best for three things, one of which touched me personally:

First, in 1981, a wunderkind sports editor who thought his pages should appeal better to yuppies shocked us all by stifling Jerry's nonpareil column as the product of old-fartism, and Jerry jumped to the Tribune, where he held court for two more decades. The wunderkind sports editor lasted only a few more months before he was sent packing. (This was a harbinger of what is now happening as non-newspaper "idea men" sodomize the Tribune and its sister newspapers.)

Second, Jerry had the largest, bushiest, most expressive eyebrows I have ever seen. They looked like dancing caterpillars.

Third, Jerry was an extraordinary gentleman, a state one doesn't often encounter in a profession full of egoes and elbows. At a crowded restaurant late in the 1970s he sought out my Lady Friend and told her how much he admired her husband's work, and there was nothing patronizing about his praise, as there so often is when people talk about the profoundly deaf. Years later, when I lauded his books in my Baseball Lit reviews -- he had gone to the Tribune by then and no longer had the home field advantage -- he would write me short notes of thanks. That was rare in itself, because the reviewed don't often thank their reviewers, but Jerry always took pains in those notes to mention other things I had written. He was subtly telling me that he read my stuff and liked it well enough to remember it.

There's no need to mention the URLs of the many obituaries that are singng his praises today. Just Google "Jerome Holtzman" and you'll see plenty of them, including a longish one in The New York Times, which does not often send out-of-town journalists to a just reward.

He was a sweet reporter and a sweet human being.

Monday, July 21, 2008

More North Woods wildlife

They say healthy whoopee lasts well into the seventies and even eighties, and isn't this septuagenarian a walking billboard for that happy fact, even for a denizen of the Upper Michigan wilderness, where men are men and women are women and sparks fly when the twain meet?

The photo was taken yesterday at the Lake Superior Day celebration in Ontonagon, Michigan, better known in my whodunits as Porcupine City. The woman had just debarked the schooner Madeline, where I perched on the ship's stern with my camera.

You can bet money that I will work the sentiment on this T-shirt into a mystery novel -- if somebody hasn't copyrighted the phrase.

Meanwhile: You go, girl!

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Do bears track on the beach?

The Lady Friend was having a cuppa this morning on the beach when she spotted fresh bear tracks all along the shore not 20 feet from the Writer's Lair. Some time last night, a 200- to 250-pound bruin had ambled from one end of the property to the other, leaving dessert-plate-sized tracks in the damp sand. I can't wait for the motion-detector game camera to come from Cabela's so I can capture our night visitors. It'll be another week.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Close-in sunset

Yes, almost every time I photograph a sunset on Lake Superior, it's from a wide-angle perspective to take in the entire cloud-dappled sky. On July 15, however, it seemed that the the brilliant colors on a small part of the horizon justified using a 135-400 mm. zoom telephoto at its shortest setting.

Thursday, July 17, 2008


We've been at the Writer's Lair on Lake Superior for two weeks now, and haven't seen much wildlife save for loons, mergansers and gulls just offshore. This year our encounters with local fauna seem to take place unseen and in the dark.

Last night our new bird feeder was trashed, even the steel standard bent. We suspected a mama bear and three cubs that have been spotted around the vicinity, but instead of bear tracks in the soft ground around the feeder, there were a number of deer imprints, according to the CSI squad that swarmed over the property shortly after dawn.

One of the investigators gravely concluded that the malefactor was large, possibly belligerent, maybe even antlered, and advised us to take steps to protect life and property.

We'll repair the feeder, but henceforth each evening we'll bring it into the cabin.

Vandalism always makes one feel violated, if one lives in the city. Up here in the semi-wilderness, however, residents are simply content not to get eaten along with the bird seed, and shrug off such four-footed depredations as part of the price one pays for living next door to nature.

Now if I can figure out how to rig a camera with a motion detector . . .

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Changing the world ad nauseam

As a book review editor for 33 years, I quailed every time the UPS man brought me a new review copy of a book whose subtitle included the words ". . . That Changed the World." For some reason publishers believe that hackneyed and hyperbolic phrase sells books, even if it bears no resemblance to reality.

In fact, a couple of years or so ago some smart guy (was it P.J. O'Rourke?) wrote a hilarious sendup for (was it the New York Times Book Review?) on the subject. I wish I could find it and wallow in resigned indignation some more. (If any of you remember who it was and where it was published, please clue me in.)

My crankiness this morning is spurred by the discovery that David Maraniss, an otherwise sterling journalist, has produced a new book called Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World. It may be an excellent work (many of the reviews are highly laudatory) but I do not plan to read it, just because of that goddam phrase.

Think I'm overreacting? Just Google "That Changed the World" (within quote marks, please).

Two million, nine hundred twenty thousand hits.

Sunday, July 13, 2008


This photograph from Wikipedia Commons shows the real Indian paintbrush.

Big error in the post last Wednesday about the wildflower called Indian paintbrush. Everything I wrote about it is accurate (as far as I know), but the photograph accompanying the post is of orange hawkweed, not Indian paintbrush.

I discovered my mistake by perusing the guidebook mentioned in Saturday's post and wondering why the illustration it carried of Indian paintbrush looked nothing like that of the flower I had photographed. A few pages later the orange hawkweed -- not even distantly related to Indian paintbrush, although it's often called "devil's paintbrush" -- cropped up, and it's a ringer for the photograph I took.

Pretty as it is, orange hawkweed, an immigrant from Europe, is considered a noxious alien in backyard gardens. It's not palatable, but it isn't poisonous, either. So much for being a potential murder weapon.


Saturday, July 12, 2008

Of strawberries and stable flies

This one's a Wild Strawberry (Fragaria vesca). This time I'm sure of it. The Lady Friend, who spent her childhood summers here in Ontonagon County, upper Michigan, says so. She's backed up by What's Doin' the Bloomin'?: A Pictorial Guide to Wildflowers of the Upper Great Lakes Regions, Eastern Canada and Northeastern U.S.A., by Clayton and Michele Oslund.

I found that superb field guide last night at the visitor center in the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, where a friend of mine, Joseph Heywood, who writes the excellent Woods Cop mystery series about an Upper Michigan conservation officer, was speaking as the park's artist-in-residence. The book was a serendipitous discovery, for as a retired journo and not-yet-retired mystery writer I have needed something new to occupy my time when the prose just isn't coming and the wildlife's hiding from my camera. And that's the photographic study of Upper Michigan wildflowers.

Photographing wildflowers in the field isn't as easy as it might seem. You've got to get really really really close to your subject, and when the wind's blowing it in and out of the camera's shallow close-up field of view, it's a tough moving target. Worse, at this time of year you've got to endure clouds of vicious stable flies; when I made it back to the Writer's Lair I was covered in them, despite liberal applications of bug spray, and their bites burned. Ten minutes outside was all I could tolerate.

The study of wildflowers ain't for sissies.

For those interested in photographic data, I used a Pentax *ist DS and a 50-200 Pentax zoom racked back to 50mm and topped with a Raynox 250 clip-on macro lens. Exposure was 1/60 second at f13, ISO 800, with on-board flash.

The bug spray was Cutter's and it didn't work at all. Nothing does against stable flies, except thick hazmat suits.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Now the leaves . . .

Continuing yesterday's discussion of the mysterious wildflower, the photograph above that I took in my driveway this afternoon shows the plant's elm-like leaves. Are we all agreed, then, that the flower is a species of common blackberry found in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

What's this?

For two days I've been searching white wildflower databases on the Internet and asking friends what they think this specimen is. It's about three feet tall, with half-dollar-sized flowers, and lives by our driveway on Lake Superior near Ontonagon in upper Michigan.

Friends have guessed dewberry and three-toothed cinquefoil. Photos on the Internet suggest it might be a toothed whitetop aster, a wood anemone, a beach strawberry -- and in a picture almost identical to the one I shot -- a California blackberry (Rubus ursinus). If it's really that last, it's waaaay east of its normal range on the West Coast and western intermountain states.

Can habitues of this blog come to my aid? There is no reward except the satisfaction of helping put a troubled mind to rest.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Murder weapon?

This isn't Indian paintbrush, but orange hawkweed. See the July 13 post for a photograph of Indian paintbrush.

A mystery writer is always looking for novel ways to dispatch a victim. That was not on my mind yesterday when the Lady Friend and I tramped about the woods near the Writer's Lair looking for woodpeckers to photograph. We came upon a copse full of Indian paintbrush, a familiar but always startling orange wildflower, the size of a quarter, whose centers burn fiery yellow in the sun.

I took the portrait of a clump, and when we returned to the cabin, looked it up. Dozens of species of Indian paintbrush -- called that because Native American tribes used it for that purpose -- are found all over the United States, and the flowers of this particular variety (Castilleja coccinea) are sweet and edible.

The flower is also full of selenium, and that is why the Ojibwa of Upper Michigan fluffed their hair full and glossy with a hair conditioner brewed from it. They also used it as a treatment for rheumatism.

The authorities, however, warn against eating a lot of paintbrush because heavy concentrations of selenium can be toxic. had this to say:

"Epidemiological studies of humans chronically (long-term) exposed to high levels of selenium in food and water have reported discoloration of the skin, pathological deformation and loss of nails, loss of hair, excessive tooth decay and discoloration, lack of mental alertness, and listlessness."

Does a killer ever stop to appreciate the flowers? Maybe in my next book one will. Could he use Indian paintbrush as a murder weapon? It would kill slowly, but surely, just as Victorian wives' arsenic dispatched hapless husbands.

But it would take a lot of patience and a long time -- too long -- perhaps, for a mystery novel.

Still the idea is fetching.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Rehabbing Michael Vick's pit bulls

One of the most reprehensible hot-button news stories my former profession likes to publish is the one headlined "Pit Bull Attacks (Child) (Old Woman) (Old Man) (Owner) (Cop)" -- you fill in the victim.

If a cocker spaniel -- the breed vets will tell you bites the most -- does a number on a neighbor child, do you ever read or hear about it? Of course not. The magic words "pit bull" just aren't there to rile up the readers, the way "communist" used to and "illegal alien" does now.

There is considerable evidence that the breed has been unfairly maligned, and now and again a newspaper does the right thing and illuminates the underlying issues. The Washington Post did so yesterday in an article about the rehabilitation of Michael Vick's fighting pit bulls.


Monday, July 7, 2008

Dawn on Lake Superior

Sunrises are as glorious as sunsets on Lake Superior, especially near Ontonagon in upper Michigan, one of the few places in the world where for a few short weeks the sun both rises and sets in the same body of water. An hour ago, at 6 a.m., I arose, immediately grabbed a Pentax, and stepped out onto the beach 20 feet away to capture this sunup. Mornings don't get much better than this.

Good riddance, Jesse Helms

"De mortuis nil nisi bonum" still is the watchword in the conventional press whenever any loathsome historical figure kicks the bucket. When Jerry Falwell died last year, most newspapers treated his departure objectively if not respectfully, and it took the blogging corps to bury him with the truth about his nasty career.

The same thing seems to have happened with the death last Friday of Jesse Helms, the North Carolina senator whose antediluvian ideas about African Americans translated into some of the nastiest political race-baiting ever seen in American elections.

But today the Washington Post dusted off a stern 2001 column by David Broder, hardly a rabble-rousing leftist, written on the occasion of Helms's retirement from the Senate. It's not quite the same as having the courage to publish a new story with the truth, but at least it bears witness.

Ironically, Broder's piece appears along with a fawning one by Marc Thiessen, the White House speechwriter (and former Helms aide) calling the senator "a great man."

For the Post this is piously "pissing down both legs," as "presenting both sides of an issue" (as if there were only two!) used to be called in the newspaper racket.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Is this the next iteration of the E-book?

Now comes the Readius, a new e-book and e-mail reader whose flexible screen enables the device to be folded up and slipped into a shirt pocket. Interesting . . . but its maker says it's going to be more expensive than the bigger, rigid $359 Amazon Kindle, and it apparently won't surf the Net. That's not a step forward.

Still, the flexscreen technology seems to have a lot of promise.

Sunset on the Fourth of July

Habitues of this blog know of my fondness for photographs of Lake Superior sunsets. Like snowflakes, sunsets in this part of the world are never the same, and they are always spectacular. This pair was shot two days ago.

The one above was taken with a 17-70mm zoom lens pulled all the way back to 17mm, the widest possible angle.

The one below, shot a few minutes later, used a 135-400mm zoom extended to the full 400mm.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Tough times in a tough place

Homely details gleaned for an upcoming novel on a July Fourth in Porcupine County, upper Michigan, by a mystery writer seeking evidence that economic times, fueled in part by skyrocketing gasoline prices, are growing worse in his bailiwick:

1. Only two massive motorhomes were to be seen in the Wolverine Mountains Wilderness State Park campground. There were quite a few travel trailers, but most campers hauled pop-up trailers or tents.

2. At least a dozen sites at the campground were still available. In previous years reservations for the weekend of the Fourth were full by the beginning of June.

3. Almost all the license plates were from Michigan and Wisconsin, with a smattering of Illinois and Minnesota. Those who aren't staying home aren't traveling far to camp.

4. Far fewer swimmers and agate hunters waded and walked the beaches than in previous years.

5. Another big motel at the entrance to the park has gone out of business -- that's two in two years - - and so has the little general store in Silverton. Now, to buy a quart of milk, campers have to drive to Porcupine City 14 miles east or Lone Pine 7 miles south.

6. A couple of cabin resorts at the entrance to the park are on the block, and their "For Sale" signs are faded and tattered.

7. The gravel shoulders of M-107, the state road into the Wolverines, have become overgrown with a waist-high riot of wildflowers -- daisies, buttercups, Indian paintbrush, Queen Anne's lace. It's beautiful, but hikers have to walk on the pavement and step aside for oncoming cars, another potential headache for a county sheriff and his deputies. The economically pinched state of Michigan hasn't the budget for maintaining these seasonal roads.

But the Wolverines are still gorgeous. No amount of privation is going to change that.

(For those who haven't read my Steve Martinez novels: The real-life counterpart of the Wolverines is the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park in western Ontonagon County, on which Porcupine County is based.)

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The first Lake Superior sunset of 2008

Yesterday we arrived in Porcupine County -- fictional site of my Upper Michigan mystery novels -- then opened up the Writer's Lair and settled in well enough for me to snap the sun descending into an oncoming storm from the northwest that rattled us most of the night with thunder and lightning.

The drive up from Chicago took nearly nine hours instead of the usual eight, thanks to keeping at 63 mph on the four-lanes and 55 mph on the two-lanes to save gas. The old Odyssey, as thirsty a beast in the city as there is, actually achieved 28 miles per gallon with the light-on-the-throttle touch that the auto experts advise.

There was nearly no northbound traffic on US 45 north of Antigo, Wis., and the motel where we stayed in Antigo was barely 20 per cent full. When we arrived in Porcupine City, the town seemed almost empty. Looks like the gas crisis is severely crimping tourism, one of the few ways Porkies are able to make money, and somehow I will have to work this unhappy development into Hang Fire, the novel-in-progress.

Desperation can drive people to murder.