The first day of October, Yang and I journeyed to Windsor Locks for one of our favorite bicycle trails. It’s shorter than many of the ones we ride (about 9 miles round trip); however, the surrounding trees, along the Connecticut River on one side and the canal on the other, provided plenty of natural beauty-including natural habit for lots of interesting critters.
We wanted to make sure we got in a ride before too late in the season because the trail officially closes from November to April while the resident bald-eagle couple nest and raise their young. Sometimes they nest earlier than usual, so we lose out on a fall ride. The swift-flowing Connecticut River on one side and its attendant canal on the other provide them with plenty of fish and other tasty treats. As this picture shows, the nest is close enough to the trail for the eagles to be disturbed by passersby. Anyway, take a gander at that nest. Enormous, isn’t it?
As we started off at the trail head, I noticed that the lock gate had been held open by a log washed down into the canal. All the recent rain must have swollen the river so that it drove much debris down river and some over the dam to the canal. You can still see the canal wending beyond and banked by trees that we later found filled with Cedar Waxwings, Chickadees, Robins, and Yellow-rumped Warblers. Those warblers must get some teasing with a name like that. Yet that rump is a lovely bight shade of yellow! Not my photo, though. The little guys move way to fast for us to photograph! This was my first ever sighting!
Here’s how the trail looked as we were starting off. You can see the leaves subtly shifting from green to soft autumn yellow. At the beginning of the trail, they created an almost chilly canopy, but not too cold. It was a gorgeous, sunny fall day, with bright sunlight and a soft blue sky. The perfect day for a bicycle ride! There were also hints of red sumac and orange maple splashing through the green and yellow, creating beautiful early-autumn accents. You can see the river and the opposite bank through the trees as well. Don’t these berries also add a wonderful dash of contrasting color?
Those berries were not only attractive to us! We saw fleets of Cedar Waxwings dashing from tree to tree, hopping about to snack on these and other berries. They are one of Yang’s favorite birds with their slick buff-colored feathers, crests, triangular black masks, and bright yellow borders on their tails. Apparently, these guys may sometimes feast on berries that have fermented, and then you never know who might stagger about the trees! Again, they moved way too fast and were too distant for us to take pictures. However, as with the Yellow-rumped Warblers, our trusty binoculars gave us a nifty view of them, even if we couldn’t capture them on film. Fortunately this site did.
We did see lots of neat critters that day, though we couldn’t always get a shot for one reason or another. I did get this picture of a beaver’s den on the bank of the opposite side of the canal. There were at least two of three of them along the way. Apparently the beavers are starting a development here. We also saw a majestic Great Blue Heron on the canal banks opposite, lots of Mallard’s hanging out, turtles basking in the sun on logs, and even a Cormorant scanning for fish from a dead tree extruding into the canal.
There was another neat creature whom I barely avoided hitting with my bike as he was stretched across the road.
Trigger warning- and I’m not referring to Roy Rogers’ horse- if you’re askeerd of SNAKES, scroll right past this paragraph.
I thought this guy was pretty cool! He extended nearly half way across the road, even semi-coiled. I think this is similar to one we saw in the marsh on the Kingston, RI trail. Is it a black snake? He seemed to just chill for a bit while Yang and I watched him, then WHOOSH! he was across the road, down the bank, and headed for water. I bet he’s glad that the eagles aren’t back yet, because they find guys like him pretty tasty.
I thought that now I’ll just drop some lovely images from the trail on you. Isn’t it beautiful the way the canal reflects the changing colors in the trees and brush?
I love this image of the power lines extending to a tower across the river. You can see some of the changing colors in the plantation and the beauty of the river and the soft blue skies dashed with clouds, their white shadowed with slatey blue.
I love the way the bitter-sweet-yellow leaves and softening greenery embrace and curve about the rusty maroon of the railroad bridge here.
There’s almost a Lovecraftian touch to the exposed roots of ancient trees snaking through and over the red rock on the other side of the canal- as if they were something sentient. Heh, heh, heh.
SNAKE TRIGGER WARNING AGAIN!
“I’m ready for my closeup, Mr. DemIlle!”
Yellow-rumped Warbler: https://www.borealbirds.org/bird/yellow-rumped-warbler
Growing up watching films from the ’30s, 40’s, and 50s, often in the dark hours of the night, I was deliciously haunted by the noir-inflected, melancholy, shadowy worlds of Val Lewton films, the eerie displacement of Universal and Columbia horror, and the mind-twisting mysteries exploring the dark side of society and the human heart. Those were perhaps the major impetus for my desire to recreate shadowy even eerie realms with my own writing. For the chiaroscuro worlds of the mystery and horror delightfully lingered in my imagination.
Specific films influence each of my novels. With Bait and Switch, I was inspired by those exercises in noir that voiced homefront fears of Nazi fifth columnists infecting our security from within. So, when Jessica Minton finds herself caught in the middle of a espionage plot that is either a gambit to flush out a fifth columnists or a fifth columnist’s plot to trick her into saving his skin, such films as They Live by Night, The Fallen Sparrow, and Confessions of a Nazi Spy inspired my creation of slippery deceptions, unclear loyalties, and sudden death in a world of slick, dark mean streets; fog rolling off the Hudson, through the New York waterfront and the Brooklyn Bridge; crumbling, sinister rows of buildings lowering on the wrong side of town; and deserted theatres.
Of course, I was not inspired merely by the dreamy darkness of these films but by the quick wit and humor peppering many of them. Perhaps the most influential in that department was All through the Night, a fast-moving tale of Nazi infiltrators inhabiting the stylish but shadowed upper echelons of New York Society – as well as the dark recesses of obscure warehouses and secret panels leading to command centers. Cutting through that sinister atmosphere is the sharp wit of Humphrey Bogart’s semi-gangster, Gloves Donohue, and his sidekicks played by the fast-talking likes of William Demarest and Frank McHugh. Of course, there is romance, as well, with a damsel in distress. I love to spice Bait and Switch with the same sort of irreverent, sardonic humor. And, though Jessica Minton may find herself caught in distress, she’s hardly a damsel. She holds her own when in danger, though a little help from her vis à vis does come in handy – that and a banana cream pie.
Letter from a Dead Man is more straight noir. No Nazis, but plenty of intrigue and unexpected conflicts stemming from hidden identities fatally revealed; stolen jade; romantic intrigue; a femme fatale who’s in the chips now (socially and financially) but will do anything to prevent the exposure of her sordid past; a frame job for murder; two tough cops, just this side of jaded; and an F.B.I. agent from Jessica Minton’s past who has his own agenda. Images and even passages from specific films noirs imbue Dead Man. The seductive manipulations of Helen Grayle fromMurder, My Sweet inspire the deadly web that Alanna Tewkesbury weaves around the Minton sisters, and those they love, to keep her secrets intact and to get her hands on stolen treasure. Imagery from The Seventh Victim, Woman in the Window, The Fallen Sparrow, Scarlet Street, and Manhunt live on in the darkened, deserted offices; lonely, rain-slicked streets; deadly lurkers in late-night subways; and even behind the hulking, cold stone of the New York Public Library Lions!
Dead Man is not all darkness. It’s lightened with the sharp reparté you’d expect from the mouth of a Rosalind Russell, a Joan Bennett, or an Eve Arden. Plus, there are some truly Lucy-and-Ethel-worthy moments of slapstick, with Jessica and Liz forced to hide in a closet from Alanna and her tough-talking torpedoes, friend Iris leading a room full of party-goers in a madcap conga to cover up an argument between Liz and her boyfriend that will put him at the center of a murder investigation, and Jess donning disguises as a maid to recover a stolen gun and as a shady lady in need of reform to snare a vital witness.
This leads to the third, soon to be released, novel in the Jessica Minton mystery series: Always Play the Dark Horse. Though this book shares much with its predecessors, there’s a different take on the noir world of mystery, fifth columnists, darkness, and doubt. Dark Horse is more inspired by the dreamy nature of Jean Renoir’s The Woman on the Beach, Lewis Milstone’s Guest in the House, or Orson Welles’s The Stranger. Scenes on the Connecticut beach at night; in the foggy advent of a storm; the presence of a mysterious rider on a magnificent black horse along the shore; the battered ghost of a beached ship where forbidden lovers once met; the twisting corridors, warren of offices, dark-paneled rooms, and hidden stone staircase of a college building, all capture the dreamy world of those films, especially Woman on the Beach. As in Renoir’s film, I found myself caught up in creating a world formed in tune to the haunting mood of Debussey’s music. The story of dark love, vicious personal conflicts, uncertain loyalties, cruel memories of war’s horrors, and the threat of a Nazi resurgence, however, edge that dream uncomfortably into the realm of nightmare so effectively created in The Stranger and Guest in the House/
That’s not to say you’ll need uppers to get through Dark Horse! The quick wit and strong sense of camaraderie that I portray in the other novels percolates here as well. I really enjoyed developing the married relationship between Jessica and James, showing their support and love for each other seasoned with their playful humor. They may not always get along or be perfectly happy with each other; but, as grown ups, they work things out. That partnership and humor are what help them resolve their case. I also enjoyed Jessica’s bond with her friend Rose. An educated and intelligent working woman (professor) and mother, Rose is a loyal, funny friend who helps Jessica stay ahead of the game. I always like to show the power of girlfriends in my books! Last, but never least, where the dog – e.g. Asta – has traditionally been the animal sidekick in mysteries, I once again return Dusty to her feline glory! She plays a major role in all three novels: a pal but not a drippy one. And there ends up being nary a mouse in the cottage by the beach where Jessica and James must do their part against murder, betrayal, and Nazis.
Screen shots from The Woman on the Beach and The Seventh Victim are from the author’s collection. RKO videos
I haven’t had a chance to do a lot of photography around the yard lately, since I’ve been so busy with writing and traveling. However, we do have many neat critters to see. We still have many interesting birds, for examSas for several days, visiting around 5:00 in the afternoon. Rosalind noticed the turkey first and tipped me off. so, we got some nice shots of her.
The cardinals have been bringing their kids to visit. I see plenty of Mr. and Mrs. Cardindal, but I’m not sure how many adolescents they have because they are all olive colored with black beaks (The beak helps you distinguish kids from female adults). I only see one baby at a time, so I don’t know if it’s the same one repeatedly or different Cardinal kiddos every time. Last year, the parents brought quite a few to the feeders, and we had about six males and females in the winter and through the spring. Then, we only seemed to have two adults. My guess is the last generation of kids moved off to college or got a job and nest in a new territory. What do you think, Cardinal experts? Anyway, this kid is pretty aggressive. He was on the feeder with a female Rosebreasted Grosbeak, who had scared every other birds off, including Mommy Cardinal. Not this kid! He kept pecking right back at her for some time.
Speaking of Grosbeaks, we have at least three males (whom I’ve seen all at the same time), but I’m not sure how many females. I have noticed that I do see a pair show up frequently, though I usually see a male or two show up without the wife. Occasionally, I’ve seen a female without the hubby. These two like to hang together on this particular feeder. They also decided to check out the oranges we put out for the Orioles as well.
The catbirds used to come frequently in the beginning of the summer, then they disappeared, pretty much, for about a month. However, now they are BACK. And they are aggressively defending the suet, cocking up their black tails and showing off that red spot underneath. I’m glad to see them-and hear them call my name, “Sharon! Sharon!” There’s one outside my window right now!
I’ll have to do another bird blog, to show you more pictures of our other feathered visitors.
Part Three: Always Play the Dark Horse
Well, here I go trying to create a new blog with WordPress’s Godawful new editor. Forgive me if this comes out crappy. It’s taken me forever to figure out how to switch back and forth between html editor and visual-nothing is clearly labeled or explained. I know this format is much uglier than the one I had previously. We’re all at the mercy of tasteless, unimaginative, homogenizing forces.
Anyway, let’s move on to a more enjoyable descent into darkness. Here’s a last gasp at wintry images with Part 2 of my report on the Hillside Cemetery of North Adams. Across the street from the original portion of the graveyard, lonely mountains rise up to close you you in and the rest of the world out on this grey day.
This is the newer portion of Hillside, and much more on an actual hillside. With the rolling slopes here, the graves, mostly 19th century, tilt and are almost upended as the ground has settled and shifted over the years-or is someone or something trying to push out?
And those slopes are pretty darned high, too, with gravestones and monuments, bleakly, implacably towering upward from an earth both browned by autumn and frosted by snow.
This cemetery has it’s share of intriguing, impressive statuary, but the brutal western Massachusetts winds, rain, and snow have not been kind to them, gradually wearing them down to softened blurs in many cases. The dove embracing this shrouded cross has lost its distinctive features and now softly merges into the cross’s drapery. The child and the lamb, representing her innocence, have melted into the seat of broken rocks symbolizing her life cut too short, too soon. A relief that should have preserved a woman’s identity in endurable stone for eternity has blurred her features into gentle vagueness. Even her identity in the form of name, family, and birth and death dates have been smoothed away to soft whiteness. A book of life’s secrets has subsumed its truths into a creamy blank of pages melted together, marked only by the stain of mold and decay. Or might this be an edition of the Necronomicon?
Of course there are also still striking images of angels and symbolic broken columns, some standing relentless against nature’s assault by winds, weather, and devouring by lichen and mold.
Some are less successful than others in resisting the assaulting elements, but are no less beautiful.
There was only one large mausoleum in this portion of the cemetery-but it is impressive, especially for the art deco angel guarding the resting bodies of the family beneath. There’s a wonderful starkness in its rising near the crest of the rolling hill, the dark tree grasping hungry branches at the sky beyond it.
And here is a closeup of the angel. Regard the myriad layers of feathers creating a shield of wings behind its head, seeming both like a peacock’s tail in full extension and a wall of tongues of flames.
The day had been cold, but not bitterly so. The ground betrayed the tracks of deer, racoon, and perhaps more predatory mammals. It was an isolated spot where no human seemed to have ventured to grieve or pay veneration for a very long time. In fact, this day this cemetery seemed like a place lost to time, to human connections. Thank goodness I saw this cute guy and not some colour out of space.