Felties are made of wool and wire. When I finish a creation it comes to life like Pinocchio. Felties are a species unto themselves. They live in a parallel universe that is much like ours, but smaller and softer. This is how their community is dealing with the pandemic.
Over the seasons friends oozed, hopped, flew, crawled or slithered by for tea. We had enchanted tea parties in this magical yard. Their manners were charming, except for Ms. Toad who peed on my hand as I was helping her be seated. She had a pre-existing bladder disorder so I didn't take it personally. The woodland guests came to my home. The ocean dwelling friends invited me to theirs on the stony shores of the Salish Sea. Each one sat for a portrait.
As a tea snob I like black, loose leaf, organic, fair-trade, free-range, non-gluten, shade-grown, CFC free, no MSG, vegan, dolphin friendly, Earl Grey tea. Some guests preferred we share a pot of fresh picked mint tisane. Two chose an earwig infusion. It was slightly bitter.
My gratitude to Mother Nature, who nurtures these delicate little wonders. Long may she reign.
These foxes are made of wool and wire. This craft is called sculptural felting or needle felting. Wool fibres have microscopic barbs that grab onto each other which is why sweaters felt and shrink if you throw them in the washing machine.
With clean carded wool that looks a bit like fibreglass insulation I pull off thin strips to wind around the wire armatures. Then stab stab stab with a barbed needle to push the outer fibres inward where they grab onto the insides. Then add more wool and keep sculpting. The more I stab the firmer the piece gets.
I'm learning this art form from artist Sara Renzulli who provides fun and free tutorials on her website. Most of these creatures start out as her designs but each one turns out quite differently than those of others following the same tutorials. I have been needle felting sporadically for 2 years.
Here is a fox from start to finish.
First the raw materials.
Then a wire armature. It is wound with pipe cleaners to make the wool hang on.
These are felting needles with tiny barbs at the tips. (Pictured here with a human tooth for scale.)
Wool is wound around the armature and stabbed with a barbed needle.
More fibre is added to give shape and texture. Every breed of sheep has wool with different characteristics and several types are used in one sculpture. The coloured wool is added last.
The shapes for the face are formed separately on the felting surface and then stabbed into the head and sculpted with the needle. The felting surface is foam so I can stab into that without breaking needles or jabbing my hand.
And Voila! Foxes!
World War 2 has been an obsession of mine since my early memories. At 6 years old I dreamed of battlegrounds of burnt and broken trees and houses and men. Ten years ago I had the following dream that has stayed with me. I wrote it down when I awoke. I have always remembered it but the details grew sketchy over the years. Last week while flipping through old journals I found it again. It was not surreal like so many dreams. It made sense and could have really happened. It was like a scene from a movie or novel. I thought of enlarging it into a story with added details from my imagination but I like it just as it happened.
I dreamed of a soldier in WW2. He was dirty and exhausted and lost but peace was called that day and he was slowly making his way through bombed out villages. He was alone in his battle gear and separated from his unit. He came upon an abandoned, shelled-out farmhouse. It was coming on night so he found himself a corner of a room upstairs, pushed aside the fallen plaster and glass and put out his blanket. He had a transistor radio and with an earphone listened to the armistice. He kept his rifle handy in case there were Germans around who didn't know they could stop killing each other now. Then downstairs he heard sweeping. He sneaked to the top of the stairs with his rifle loaded with his last two bullets. He peaked around the corner and the farmer who had lived there had come home, trying to make some sense of his crumbling house. The soldier waved and they spoke. That night two more soldiers arrived, also lost and making their ways toward the beaches to find their units. A mother and her girl arrived looking for shelter. They pushed aside more rubble and glass and all laid out their blankets and pooled their food. Someone had bread, another had cheese. There were some army rations and a chocolate bar. An unbroken bottle of wine was found in what was left of the farmhouse pantry. They talked quietly. They were not jubilant or celebratory, just worn out and ready to go home. Then the first soldier saw behind a broken wall an undamaged banjo, tuned it, and in the flickering candlelight with this group of tired stragglers he played, almost sadly, "Ode to Joy."
After this dream I woke up, put on my army helmet, carried my banjo to the top of the bluff, and played "Ode to Joy" to the Salish Sea.
This junco dad (right) is raising a much bigger cowbird baby. Cowbirds are called brood parasites because the mother will lay her egg in another species nest, displacing a host egg, then disappear and let the foster parents do all the work. A cowbird egg usually hatches in less time than other birds and the baby gets bigger faster and starves out the other nestlings.
The junco dad in these pictures has been feeding this fledgling for a week, as well as the weeks it was in the nest. He is getting tired of the constant pestering for food. Although he takes his responsibility seriously and continues to feed, he occasionally takes a lunge at the baby. The cowbird should be self feeding by now but there is a problem - the upper mandible is too short. It stops just after the nostrils. He can't pick up seeds. It's like eating with one and a half chopsticks. I've been waiting to see if he would adapt and figure out some other workaround but so far begging is his main solution. There is seed on the ground as well as the feeders and yesterday he learned that it is easier to eat from the ground than from the hard surface of the feeders because he can push his lower beak in a bit until the upper mandible can grab a grain of millet, so he is adapting. The father, after a week, has stopped feeding him and now the cowbird must figure out how to live life with this mutation.
Although cowbirds have a bad reputation and people dislike them, I can't blame the baby for the negligence of the parents, although I know this bird will grow up to copy the behaviour that is so frowned upon. Other species of birds rob nests and eat other birds and we don't think they are terrible. I think with cowbirds we put our own social mores on them. They are not monogamous and they do not stick around to raise their young so we judge them. They used to follow the buffalo herds and were transient so they couldn't stay in one place long enough to raise a brood. Snubby is alive and at my feeder and is interesting. I'm not going to wring his neck so I may as well enjoy him. And I got a blog post and a few of decent photos out of this cowbird's dilemma and his long suffering junco dad.
-several days later- Snubby is eating seeds from standing grass. I sprinkle food on the ground for him. He hangs out with the chickens now and is not afraid of me, probably because he was raised just four feet away from me at my window feeder so he is used to my movements. He's always around and looks me in the eye while I talk to him. He spotted his dad today and went to him begging but got chased off. The dad has cut the cord and Snubby is on his own. He looks like a female at this point but they usually do when they are young so it's hard to tell. I will continue to call it a he.
-another day passes- I am now under constant surveillance. At 6am there his is peering in the window. I go outside and he follows two feet behind. I am accompanied to the outhouse. Yesterday I was napping in my reclining lawn chair and Snubby perched on my knee. He flies from window to window following my movements through the house. He is too short to see in the door so he stands on the step and jumps up to window level again and again like he's on a trampoline. This is all because I tossed him three meal worms yesterday. Since then he has had about 15 more. I'm rationing them because he needs to find food on his own and also the meal worms will run out and I am afraid he will then feast on my eyeballs. He waits on a shelf by the door outside and when I open the door there he is ready for his treat. He learned so fast. Birds are such sharp cookies.
- next day - A local cat killed Snubby. Broke my heart.
On Easter Monday my older house rabbit died. Buzz was my companion in the house for 8 years. She used a litter box and didn't chew wires, though she did eat the tassels off the rugs. She was an excellent companion and each time I looked at her a hundred times a day I'd get a surge of pleasure. I miss her gentle spirit around the house and her enthusiasm for treats. She loved to shred phone books and devour boxes. Buzz is survived by fellow rabbit, Beasty Wieners, who is seven.
I used to have a mattress on the floor where I slept and both rabbits slept with me. Waking up to bunnies in the bed is funny. I'd scrunch over to the one side so they could use the bed as a runway and they charged full speed up and down, leaping and twisting in the air like little lambs. It's a fun way to wake up - if it weren't 4:00 in the morning.
Buzz was a lionhead rabbit, a smallish breed with short body hair and a mane of longer fur around the head. Her mane wasn't pronounced because Beasty ate it. She also ate all her whiskers. Beast always kept Buzz well groomed and trimmed. Even on Buzz's last day Beasty Wieners spent much of the day grooming her. I knew she was in good hands.
Buzz had a fairly peaceful death. She seemed to want my attention and I'm glad she didn't hide. She ate dandelion greens right up to the last day when hand fed and was even dragooned into a short game of chase by the Beast on her second last day. When the time came she scurried into her tunnel and died there. This breed lives 7 to 10 years so she was in her golden years. Because of this and because of the stress of the noisy ferry ride which would terrify her with all the dogs and strangers and commotion I felt it would be kindest not to subject her to any heroics at the vet when likely nothing could be done anyway.
Buzz and Beasty Wieners were spayed which makes it easier to litter train, and makes them less likely to fight with each other. Introducing rabbits is tricky, you could have a bonded pair or a fight to the death. You need neutral territory so when I introduced Beast to Buzz 7 years ago I used my neighbour's entryway and sat wearing oven mitts and gumboots and holding a broom for over an hour, prepared to intercept if the fur should fly. Buzz was aggressive at first but was asserting her dominance. Beasty just wanted to eat the broom. Eventually they turned their backs on each other and groomed and I knew it was a match. I took them home where they were inseparable and over the next 7 years their bodies were almost always touching. They especially enjoyed sprawling by the fire in winter, and lying in sunbeams in the summer awaiting raisin deliveries.
Lionhead rabbits shed like huskies and I save up the fur every winter. In spring I put it on a rocky outcropping in front of my window. Soon chickadees and yellow-rumped warblers come for the fur to line their nests. It's the only time I see these birds up here but they come for this bit of fur every spring. This year after Buzz died I put out the fur I'd collected over the winter and the birds came and gathered great wads of it in their beaks. I like to think of those cozy chickadees in their fur lined nests. Buzz was a bright and gentle spirit and it seems fitting she should live on in this way.
Here is a picture of Buzz snoozing in her litter box.
When your chickens eat millet and cracked corn lots of wild birds join in. I built a feeding table so I could feed the chickens underneath to keep the grain dry, and sprinkle food on top for the birds. Mostly juncos come year round, with a few sparrows and towhees. There are seasonal visitors like the gang of red-winged black birds dining at the buffet table just now. They will stay throughout the spring and summer and raise their young here. In the summer grosbeaks come for a few weeks and add a little colour. Crossbills drink from the bird bath.
One year a flock of pine siskins (small gregarious finches) came for the summer. I sat by the feeder with a handful of sunflower seeds and waited. They are a fairly tame species and they put up with my slow movements as I offered them seeds. It only took a day and when some took food from my hand the others felt it was safe. For the rest of the summer every time I went outside finches would land on me. They went off to have families and brought their babies back to feed them. One time a mother and her baby were in my hand and there were sunflower seeds in my palm. The mother would give a seed to the baby, then jump around on my fingers warning other birds away, then she'd turn around and give another seed to her baby, then jump around defending the perimeter again. Slowly I brought up my other hand, stroked her back and said, "you are such a good momma," and she allowed this. I was repairing my power system batteries one day with a pine siskin on my shoulder, one on my arm, and one on the top of my head. They offered all sorts of advice (clean the contacts, top up the water, tighten the nuts.) They must have been males.
A sharp shinned hawk hunts at the feeders and I get to see it swoop in after smaller birds. It usually misses, but once it caught a junco in its talons three feet away on the feeder at my window. These windows where I sit are like a big screen T.V. tuned to the nature channel. Deer and sheep wander through eating the flowers, raccoons come at night, beautiful chickens parade about by day, ravens keep an eye on us all. The yard is always animated. It's hard to stop staring.
Here is a little video of the junco feeding frenzy. You can stop watching halfway, nothing new happens after that, but I left the whole video for those who are mesmerized like I am.
The farmhouse door opens as though by a gust of cold and the mother, at the cook stove stirring porridge, turns to see the neighbour girl is there, in her hand-me-down dress and thin coat, her boots and bare legs, her sharp black eyes. "Ma said daddy might have killed himself with the gun in the shed. She wants somebody to go see."
The mother turns to her oldest boy, eleven, "You go look. Go see what happened."
The boy and the girl cross the fields. The hard crust of snow holds each step briefly before they break through into the softer underbelly. The crust pushes the boy's trouser legs up and rasps against his shins. The girl's legs are already raw.
"Why don't your ma go look," he says.
"She don't want to."
The boy breaks off a chunk of crust the size of a shovel blade and sends it skimming over the surface where it shatters against a post. He whistles lightly through his teeth a song he heard on the radio. He thinks it's called Nine Pound Hammer and he has tapped its rhythm all week, with his spoon on his porridge bowl in the morning, with a nail on the on the milk pail in the barn, with the axe handle on the lake ice where he goes each morning before light to break the new skin and draw water for the house.
He snaps off a stem of teasel and holds it up. "If it was dark and we had to see we could light this for a torch.
"Wouldn't burn long," says the girl. "Burn out before you got to see what you meant to see."
"I'd smear it in bacon grease. It'd burn like a candle," he says.
"Then the fat would melt and run down your arm and you'd get burnt."
He shrugs and throws the weed into the bushes.
Coming out the other side of the sumac meadow they see the house. It leans slightly. Smoke rises from the chimney. A bony mongrel barks four times, it's breath hanging over it like thoughts.
"In that." The girl points to a shed across the paddock. It has a plastic window and a sheet metal roof. It has one set of tracks leading too it.
He sends another disc of crust skittering across the surface. "I'll go look," and the girl waits behind, hugging her thin arms around herself.
Placing his feet in the girls fathers footsteps he makes his way toward the door. His awareness circles him. He feels his raw shins burn, he feels winter in his nostrils and on the precise round surface of his eyes, the strain in his groin as he tries to match his step to this man's longer stride, the scrape of the door where the floor has heaved up, the muscles beneath his eyes pull into a squint in the dim shed.
In the house the girl's mother sits with a cat in her lap. Her fingers are still and light on its fur. She stares out the window into the bones of a lilac bush. The boy says, "It's a real mess, missus. There's blood and stuff all over the walls and floor. He done a real sure job of it." He doesn't know how else to say it. She looks slowly through the room as if fingering through fog - the upper edge of wainscoting, dusty jars of plum preserves and pickles on a shelf, the map-like edges of a water stain on the wallpaper, coming to rest on a blow up punching bag with foolish painted features and weighted in the bottom to keep it popping upright with every blow. It was the only gift for the children that Christmas.
"His last breaths are in that dummy," she says.
Returning home across the fields the boy retraces his footsteps, gathers them in, cancels them.
(This piece was written some years ago for our local Arts Festival. After seeing a number of psychiatrists of varying abilities over the years for treatment of depression and bipolar disorder I felt I had the experience to offer some helpful hints to others seeking help.)
If your psychiatrist's name is Dr. Gonnorago do not call him Dr. Gonorrhea.
When your psychiatrist asks you to chart your moods for a week, do not draw a line graph that includes outlines of duckies, piggies and cows.
If you mostly wear pyjama bottoms for pants, do not wear them to your appointments, even if they are your "going out for good" pair. Ditto the mismatched socks.
When you are hiking into town along a highway for an appointment and find a stuffed grouse nailed to a perch on the side of the road, by all means put it in your knapsack to add to your home decor. Do not, however, respond to your shrink's inquiry into the efficacy of your medication by reaching into your pack, retrieving the grouse, and saying, "I keep giving him the anti-psychotics like you said, but he still won't admit he's stuffed."
When you are at home chopping wood and find three gigantic grub worms the size of cocktail weenies, put them in the unused stool sample container you've been saving for a rainy day. Punch a hole in the lid for air. Put the container in a large envelope and leave it at your doctor's office with a note that says, "I figured out what's wrong with me. See enclosed stool sample." It's worth it.
When the only time we hear about schizophrenics and manic depressives in the media is when one kills somebody, remind the general public about the millions of us who would do no such thing.
If you're in the psych ward and find a copy of the "Buy, Sell and Trade" in the garbage, read the ads in the livestock section, but don't keep calling the guy in Bowser and ordering homing pigeons. He won't deliver.
Should you have the strange fortune to watch your psychiatrist go insane before your very eyes, and she's sitting on the floor in front of you yelling, "YOU ARE TURNING PEOPLE AGAINST ME. YOU TURN PEOPLE AGAINST ME. I DO NOT HAVE ENOUGH MONEY. I DO NOT HAVE ENOUGH MONEY," step out onto the hot, dusty sidewalk in the blazing noonday sun like a gunslinger in a Western. Blow across the barrel of your finger pistol. Say, "My work is done here."
When you've tamed a flock of finches that land on you whenever you are outside, don't tell your shrink that you sit in the yard, head in hands, weeping, and covered in songbirds. He won't buy it.
Clear up common misconceptions about clinical depression and bipolar disorder. Severe clinical depression is not "the blues." It is not like grief. You cannot pull up your socks and snap out of it if you would only try. You cannot think your way out of a severe episode any more than you could think your way out of schizophrenia, a stroke, or a seizure. It is not rational. You may no longer see in colour. You may become unable to speak or move. It is a severe and terrifying brain disorder often involving misfirings of neurons and neurotransmitters and blah blah blah blah until you finally kill yourself. Or worse yet, live.
You'll drink chamomile tea and St. John's wort tincture by the gallon. You'll try high dose vitamin therapy and essential oils. You'll go to naturopaths, homeopaths, and even a few psychopaths. You'll meditate and exercise. You'll go off wheat, sugar, dairy. You'd eat slug slime and dung beetles if it would help. But if nothing provides enough relief and a decent psychiatrist finds just the right drugs to balance your brain chemicals to give you some peace, take the goddam things.
Send that psychiatrist a thank you note on a homemade card with a photograph of dead mice you stuffed into a tiny Volkswagen. But don't add, "P.S. Mice will do anything I say."
Always remember you get by with a little help from your friends. Okay, a LOT of help from amazing friends. They'll sweep up your smashed dishes, launder your filthy clothes, make you bathe. They'll build your chicken coop, your house, your rain catchment, your life. They'll give you land, buy you a trailer, build your road. They'll feed you, house you, massage you, include you. They'll save your life again and again and may not even know they are doing it.
The mental healthcare system is crazy in itself and can be harmful. But if you educate yourself and define your expectations, it can be useful. If you can't stand up for yourself, and who can during the worst times, you'll need an advocate. Mine is my friend, Kathy. She'll never let them drag me off and lock me away. She prefers to do that herself.
Jay Rainey is an artist living on an island in British Columbia, Canada.