Saturday, July 30, 2011


Forrest McCluer, a friend and sculptor who lives across the street, needed help this afternoon. So he asked my menfolk – husband Ben and sons Alex and Elliot, to help move one of his pieces. Alex and I had an errand to run – involving sculpture clay and a belt that holds water bottles. But Forrest’s activity would be first on our list of priorities, and we realized it might be a significant commitment, when we saw that two other neighbors, Sean and Greg, were also enlisted to help.

I went along to watch and to document the process with Forrest’s camera.

In his front garden, Forrest has arranged several geodesic spheres in a bed of pumpkin plants. But through the gate and in the back we found what he wanted them to move. It was one of three massive spheres in his yard, two constructed from computer parts. The piece in question was entitled “Bones,” made from the rusted frames of thirty PCs. Another sculpture, displayed further back in his garden, was assembled out of the case covers from these same PC’s, only this one was called “Skins.”

The task this afternoon was to mount ‘Bones’ on its axis between two steel columns set in concrete slabs. The guys would do this in phases, Forrest explained. First they would lift it, to be sure that they could. Then they would raise it above its working mount, and down onto the ground. Next, they would walk the sculpture backwards, towards Greg’s property line, so that the central pole, on which the sculpture was to be mounted, could be moved and then centered. Forrest would have to whack at the mounting pole hard with a mallet, to get it into position. And finally, two metal and timber fittings would be threaded onto the pole and slotted into the columns. Thus the sculpture in its final position would be able to spin on the pole across its axis.

The men gathered round. Each one grabbed a different part of the sphere – or rather, a different computer frame. “Ready?” asked Forrest. They were ready. “One, two, three lift~”

They heaved. And they put it back down. They rested. They agreed what they would do next. They lifted it again. They became tired and sweaty. Greg and Sean’s dogs often got underfoot. “Get outa here!” Sean cried repeatedly. At which his enormous German Shepherd trotted away briefly, only to return.

“How long did it take you to make this one, Forrest?” I asked, at one point, while they rested. Forrest was busy unscrewing bolts from his working mount.

“This one took him a long time. A very long time,” said Greg.

“How much does it weigh?” I asked.

“Three hundred pounds?” suggested Greg.

“No~” said Elliot.

“There are thirty computer cases on this one,” said Forrest, finishing with his bolts. “And they don’t weigh that much.”

“Two hundred maybe?” suggested Ben.

Forrest said, “I’m going to put a web cam on this one here.” He was pointing at “Skins”, the other geodesic sphere, constructed out of computer case covers. He wanted it to become an interactive kinetic sculpture. It was set in a permanent bed, circled by a stone wall.

“Okay. You guys ready? This time we’re going to walk it back towards Greg’s house,” Forrest said. “Ready? One two three…” and they lifted; they walked it back. The sun blazed as they set the sculpture on the grass.

Everyone needed a beer. In between lifts, Alex talked about Burning Man. “Yeah,” he said. “I’m on the team for the Temple burn.”

“I’ve had my eye on Burning Man for the last ten years,” said Greg. “But I never got there. This your first time?”

“No, I went last year,” said Alex. “But I’m going out to the desert in the next few weeks to help construct the temple.” He was moving around affably on his feet as he talked and swigging on a beer. He had his hair in a mohawk and was wearing shades. Ben sat on a chair and drank his Rolling Rock. Elliot sat too, resting his elbows on his knees.

Alex explained that the central structure of the Burning Man temple was going to be 120 feet tall – and that 24 flat bed trucks were required to bring in all the prefabricated panels out to the desert for construction.

“So you’ve seen the design?” Forrest asked. Alex explained the temple would have five towers around the central structure, each 40 feet tall. It would be in the end, the second largest monolithic timber structure in the world.

“And you’re building this so you can burn it.” Greg’s question was more of a statement, full of admiration. Forrest laughed with delight.

“The man is burnt on the Saturday and the temple is burned on the Sunday, and that marks the end of the festival,” Alex explained.

“So, Forrest,” I said. “What about this one here…” I was referring to his third, new sculpture, evidently under construction.

“That is part of my virus series,” he said – “I’d been working on these computer pieces for ten years and was trying to figure out what I could do next, when I hit on the idea of a virus. I said oh my God – They’re the same shape!”

The guys had to get back to work on “Bones”. The central pole needed to be positioned so that each end was equal in length. Ben located Forrest’s tape measure. They did the calculations. Forrest whacked the end of the pole with a mallet. His t shirt became wet. It was hot and exhausting work. “How many more inches?” he asked – as Greg measured the pole at the other end.

“Half an inch more,” he said.

Forrest gave his end of the pole another whack with the mallet. Greg measured his end.
“Perfect,” he said.

One more lift. The guys positioned themselves, each grabbing one of the computer shells. “One, two, three lift!” They walked it into position. They set it into its mounts.

And rested.

“Let me get a shot of you,” I said, “– all in front of the sculpture.” I took the picture with Forrest’s camera.

“Okay,” said Forrest. “Who wants to give it a spin?”

I took more pictures with my iphone as Sean and Alex posed inside the sculpture, and as they set it spinning. “Do you mind if I blog about this, Forrest,” I asked.

He laughed. “Sure,” he said. “Go right ahead.”

Greg had to get back home. Ben also crossed the road for our house. Alex, Elliot and I stayed chatting with Sean and with Kelly, Forrest’s youngest daughter, who is a good friend of Elliot’s, and who came outside to join us.

Alex talked about his Masters thesis in Fire Engineering, about Burning Man – the heat, and the tents and the camps – and the way the grid of the city was organized. He talked about the magic carpet rides –and how after the fourth day of the festival they all said to each other,‘how are we going to do life differently from this? This is clearly what life is meant to be!’

Kelly sat on a chair and listened. “Hmm,” she mused. “Now I know why you’ve never told me about this.” She looked up at Forrest.

“I was sheltering you,” he joked.

For more information on what Alex is doing at Burning Man, check out his blog:

And see more about Forrest McCluer’s sculptures at:

Saturday, July 23, 2011


That’s what it is today in Falls Church, Virginia. 105 degrees.

I walked Basil, my wire haired dachshund, in the Haycock Woods at 7 in the morning. And Ben went running. It was our one and only shot on the day. We had to get it in before it was too hot to go outside. Then I went down to the farmer’s market for handmade soap, and lettuce and tomatoes (ours have finished), and for a large slab of focaccia and a dozen free range eggs. Don’t ask why, but they seemed a good idea.

Everyone in the market was wilting. The air was like an unmade bed of stale sheets. If God was in His right mind, He’d have tossed today in the bin. This one is too burnt. This one is a dud. Then He would have moved right on to another, better, fresher day.

But a young bearded man, played his fiddle on the corner of the market nonetheless, and the merchants in the farmer’s market smiled. “Stay out of the heat,” they all said.

Afterwards I went to the library and sat in an air-conditioned corner. I read Half A Life in one sitting. Then I drove back home in a melted car with my checked out book, The Finkler Question.

I sat on the scalding terrace with Alex. We didn’t know why we were doing it. Because it was there, I suppose. To experience extremity. Yesterday Alex got a mohawk and it looks quite good and his mind is full of Burning Man because he’s going to Nevada in a few weeks time, as one of the fire engineers for the Temple burn.

We sat on the wooden chaises longues watching the sprinkler water the grass. For the first time this July, the cicadas were silent. Only one was trying to get things started. He was like a party guy at a game, when everyone else is too hot or defeated to do the wave. Or else he was the guy at a rock concert trying to get people to clap together. Come on, everyone. Let’s make a noise. If we do this now, people will know forever all about the Cicadas. We will be legend!

The other cicadas were too hot to join him. They’d all lost heart. Fuck off, they said with their silence.

I had turned on the sprinkler, thinking of the grass, yes, but also of the birds. Alex and I watched it circle and splutter. “Water is amazing,” I said. “It adds so much!” And then we laughed and laughed. Call it gallows humor. I know it isn’t very funny. But a few robins at the far end of the garden emerged on the grass. “Do we dare believe our eyes?’ they seemed to suggest, as they hopped towards a mirage of sprinkled water that turned into real water. As the sun blazed down…

Then Alex and I went back indoors. We checked our email. We drank more water. We read. I ventured outside to pick basil from the garden. I made a salad which no one felt like eating. Ben came downstairs after a nap. “I keep conking out,” he said. “This is like a snow day. Except with heat.”

It was just too hot. We wanted it to end. There was nothing else for the day to do but end.

Friday, July 15, 2011


We had attended a hog roast in Peasmarsh at some neighbors of Walter and Anthony’s, and the following morning, still full of pork and crackling and applesauce, we – Walter and Anthony’s house guests - took a walk to see another hog who lived in a nearby field. Walter had dubbed him Mr. Pig. He loved this pig. He visited the farm down the laneway practically every day, just in order to see it.

There were six of us on the excursion. We walked up the farmer’s drive. It was a fresh July morning with a billowy sky and fields full of sheep. At the top of the hill between the trees, the road continued up to a house belonging to Lionel and Edward. Lionel had recently died, so now only Edward lived there. I remembered seeing their garden years before. They had strung children’s dolls in the trees as decoration. I was telling Rozzie this as we walked. They also had a pair of mannequin legs with Wellington boots sticking out of a hole in the garden.

“Look!” said Walter. “There he is!” Our first glimpse of Mr. Pig! He sat under a tree like Ferdinand the bull. The head was gigantic, an extension of the body, and disproportionately huge compared with the donkeys and sheep in the field.

Two donkeys trotted to the fence. Alex and Phoebe petted them while Walter called the pig. “Mr. Pig!” he called. The pig made his way towards us. He knew Walter’s voice. You could see he was hurrying, but he seemed to be going slow motion. He wasn’t making progress. It was as if he was trotting in place. Perhaps it was because his feet were small that he took such dainty steps. In any case, his body was absolutely huge, with a fuzzy pink back and an outsized head.

As he got closer you could see all the flies buzzing round. The snout was massive and spongy, flecked in dirt. There was something both repulsive and touching, underscored by the expression in the blue and human looking eyes. He was watchful and intelligent.

“Hello Mr. Pig!” said Walter. “How are you? Isn’t it marvelous?”

We agreed it was. “Why is its head so huge?” asked Phoebe.

“Can you see why I love it?” asked Walter. “And why I come to visit?”

We all said we could.

“But hang on Walt – I think this is Mrs. Pig,” said Rozzie.

“Oh really?” said Walter.

“Males don’t have hanging teats do they?”

“I suppose not.” The conversation went on like this, and got a little worse, for several minutes.

“Let’s just call it Pig,” I suggested.

“No,” said Walter. “I like the name Mr. Pig.”

The donkeys were pretty and enjoyed being stroked on the nose by Alex and Phoebe. But Mr. Pig didn’t like them taking the spotlight. She snorted and spluttered crossly.

Walter tried to stroke her head. The pig tried to smile. It had a gummy smile – with short stubby teeth. The smile seemed vaguely familiar. I’ve seen people with mouths like that.

After a few minutes we headed back in the direction from which we’d come. Actually things happened in a slightly different order than this. But the point is, there was a sheep in distress: a stuck ewe. She had fallen over and was struggling to get up. She was far across the field on her back with her lamb close by. The ewe bleated plaintively.

“Oh gosh,” said Atli. “What’s wrong?”

“Do you think it’s been hurt,” someone asked.

“Perhaps it’s in labor,” suggested another.

“But that’s its lamb, right there.”

The little lamb was basking in the sunshine a few yards off, and chewing grass, while the ewe let out a frightened baa every so often, struggled helplessly, and waved its little black legs. It was either hurt or trapped, we couldn’t be sure which. Meanwhile, its lamb paid absolutely no attention. It merely gazed off in another direction.

The farmer’s cottage was back near Mr. Pig. We decided to knock on the door. Walt went up the path and returned a few minutes later.

“There’s someone inside,” he announced. “But they are hoovering – so they can’t hear me knocking.”

“Well they can’t hoover forever,” I said, thinking he might at least try knocking again.

“No. I suppose not.”

That’s when a car passed down the drive. In the car were two people - a woman and Edward, the man who lived in the house on the hill. They stopped to see what we were doing.

The woman got out and stood with us at the fence, looking at the struggling ewe. “Isn’t nature weird,” she said. “The mother is dying but the lamb just sits there completely unfazed.”

Atli had climbed over the fence and was heading into the field. He approached the ewe; its lamb trotted away. Atli bent to make his inspection. The ewe’s legs were thin black sticks jutting at odd angles from a round wooly body.

“I think she’s hurt a back leg,” Atli called to us. “Should I try to prop her up?”

“Don’t Atli,” Rozzie said. “It might make it worse.”

“Our James Herriot moment,” Walt said, hamming up our hopelessness. “Oh dear! What are we to do!”

By this time Edward had got out of the car and stood with his hands in his pockets, a small elderly man with a gentle expression. “What are you doing? Looking after sheep?” he asked. He had a north-country accent. His face was placid. “Go to the beach,” he said. “There’s nothing to be done. They die, these animals. That’s what they do.”

We returned to Walter and Anthony’s cottage. Walt decided that their neighbor Stephanie would know how to handle it. She was very capable. She was the one who had the pet goose, which was attacked by a mink. I wrote about that goose in a posting in March.

The goose died, by the way.

We wondered what would become of the ewe. Perhaps it would also die. But
later that evening, we heard it was fine. It had just fallen over and couldn’t get up because it was too fat. Stephanie went round, and put it on its feet.

Some geese are pets. Others are Christmas dinner. Some hogs get roasted at big summer parties. Others become our friends. And a great many of us who adore the countryside don’t know the first thing about it.

Monday, July 11, 2011


I am sitting in my daughter Rozzie and her boyfriend Atli's henhouse cottage in Shackleford. I've been in the UK for the last three weeks and haven't posted anything here for several weeks.

I want to tell you about Fred the dog- a sixteen year old lurcher who lives on this property with his owner Caroline, two other dogs and a tiny baby. Fred came to visit us a couple of times last week, when we were sitting round the fire pit. Atli had been entertaining us with impersonations. Alex and Elliot had been playing their ukuleles. The fields stretched out before us in the moonlight, the fire was glowing and off to one side a little glistening pond of waterlilies.

The pond, Rozzie told us, was populated with great crested newts. But carp has recently been introduced into the pond by the landlords, and the problem was that they ate the newt eggs. Rozzie was worried; the newts were endangered. "But we won't tell," her landlord had remarked.

"That isn't the point," said Rozzie.

We were winding down our evening round the fire pit, and had drunk a lot of wine. Elliot, in his bowler hat, pajamas and big socks prepared to head across the field to the tent where he'd be sleeping. In the kitchen, I began washing up. It was then that Fred the lurcher wandered in from outside.

"Oh Mum - here's Freddy!" Rozzie cried. "Come and see him. Isn't he gorgeous?" He was an elderly bearded dog bouncing in with his arching greyhound's back, white and grey fur - thin legs and a wonderful nose that led from his face like a mouse. He was beautiful. According to his owner Caroline, Fred is deaf, blind and going senile.

After we stroked and fussed over him for a bit, Fred wandered back to the moonlight. Then we heard a splash. He'd fallen in the pond.

Rozzie dashed outside. She stooped beside the pond to hoist him out. When I ran out Roz was kneeling beside the pond, her skirt soaked in pond water, and Fred the dog was benign on the bank, having been rescued. Then Fred's owner, Caroline, appeared.

"I'm so sorry," she said. "We've spoiled your party!"

"Not at all," said Roz. "We love Freddy!"

Fred shook his coat and bounced away across the moonlit lawn. I wouldn't call him grateful. It was more a matter of course.

Elliot, in his pajama bottoms and big socks appeared, ready to go to his tent. I suggested he put on wellington boots. Rozzie had said there were adders in the field. So Elliot made his way across the field in his boots, to his tent, for the night.

Ben and I slept on the pull out sofa under heavy blankets. We were woken up by the sun, and the song of chaffinch and morning dove.

"Did you see the gooseberry bush, Mum," Rozzie asked when I went outside. The bush was in the walled garden. I headed out to see it, under a cloudless July sky. The garden was full of blossoming flowers round the pond. Of hydrangea, box and mint, poppies, pansies and daylilies.

Elliot was picking gooseberries and gathering them in his bowler hat. Rozzie intended to make jam.

I sat in the walled garden on the mossy steps. Then Caroline appeared with her baby in the Snugli, her three dogs, including Fred, following behind.

"So sorry about last night," she repeated. "Fred used to be such a handful. In his younger days. he was a real terror. A hunting dog. He'd chase things for miles across the fields. How the mighty have fallen, eh Fred?"

Fred the dog stood his ground, with the resignation of extreme old age, between the slatted wooden chairs on the lawn. His owner Caroline was a beautiful girl with brown skin and a tattoo on her upper arm of elephants linked, tail to trunk. She had silver rings on her fingers. Her baby was asleep in the Snugli on her chest. Fred the dog was thinking about something beyond all us. He was much wiser. He'd seen much more of life.