Wild thing

Coyote yips drift through the open bedroom window sometime before dawn. It’s May’s most consistent night song. Chester’s hackles rise and he growls low. I pull the sheet over my ears.

Regal ChesterChester’s been chased by a coyote three times. These aren’t the lean, mangy, skulking wild dogs of past years. This crop of fat boys trot across the trail. They sit. Cross their legs. Light a cigarette, pinky ring glinting in the morning glare before they chase.

First time it happened, J was walking Chester. He stood his ground, raised his arms and yelled “Stop!” When it was my turn at the wrong end of a coyote chase I did the same. The coyote cocked his head, tightened his silk cravat, emulated the Don Draper eyebrow lift and then slowed his pursuit to a model-like prowl.

Chester bolted, leaving me to walk backwards until I couldn’t see the whites of coyote’s eyes any more. A chilling sweep of goose bumps rose on my neck.

It’s not an option to stay indoors when this is steps from my backyard.

trail vista

But where there is prey, there are predators.

oh deer

Last night, I dream there’s a lion with full mane in my house, barreling down the hallway toward my bedroom.  I slam and lock the door, lean against the wood which cracks and creaks and splinters against my hand. I call out to J in his office. There’s a lion in the hallway! Shut your door!  He’s working on his computer and not paying attention and the lion pounces. I wrestle the lion, wrangle his scruffy neck and heave him out the office window which somehow overlooks a high stony cliff to the sea even though we’re nowhere near the ocean.

I’m sure it’s a dream inspired by recent sightings that frighten me more than coyotes. Yesterday when Chester and I walked, we heard a rustling in the oak grove at the bottom of the hill.

cool oak tree

The noise spooked us both, much louder than the familiar rabbit scurry or quail scuttle through dry leaves.  It sounded human-size, but stopped as we neared, the instinct of an animal.  Chester’s fur ruffled; he hush-growled and we turned heel, Chester wildly scanning the scrub oak lining the trail.  To one side stands a solitary oak  and within it we heard another great flurry of leaves overhead. I expected a hawk, a peregrine falcon, maybe even the screech owls that have taken up in the neighborhood but the shadow didn’t fly. It scampered down the branches, down the trunk, a shadow bigger than my dog.

It’s been about a month since J and I spotted a mountain lion off the trail about a five minute walk from this grove and a neighborhood association warning came last week.

A mountain lion has been seen in the Dove Canyon area.

The animal was picked up on cameras operated at Starr Ranch Sanctuary.

Additionally, this past week Dr. Don Earl of Lido Animal Hospital treated a greyhound that survived a serious attack from a mountain lion that climbed into the backyard of a home in Dove Canyon. The Department of Fish and Game is aware of the dog attack and has tips on its website should you encounter a mountain lion.

I read the “Keep Me Wild” tips.

  • If you encounter a mountain lion, do not run; instead, face the animal, make noise and try to look bigger by waving your arms; throw rocks or other objects. Pick up small children.
  • If attacked, fight back.

I don’t have a great track record with looking big. And I’m an awful thrower.  But I sing when I’m nervous and there’s one song that’s on rerun this spring.

This morning, I hurl lyrics, loudly, and yes, maybe dance and air guitar a bit on the trail. Chester didn’t seem to mind, but I might have some explaining to do to the woman who caught me coming around a blind curve. Last I saw, she was backing away, waving her arms to the sky.

With a song on my lips,

Gary Snyder wrote a spot-on poem about sensing the presence of a wild thing.
One granite ridge
A tree, would be enough
Or even a rock, a small creek,
A bark shred in a pool.
Hill beyond hill, folded and twisted
Tough trees crammed
In thin stone fractures
A huge moon on it all, is too much.
The mind wanders. A million
Summers, night air still and the rocks
Warm.   Sky over endless mountains.
All the junk that goes with being human
Drops away, hard rock wavers
Even the heavy present seems to fail
This bubble of a heart.
Words and books
Like a small creek off a high ledge
Gone in the dry air.
A clear, attentive mind
Has no meaning but that
Which sees is truly seen.
No one loves rock, yet we are here.
Night chills. A flick
In the moonlight
Slips into Juniper shadow:
Back there unseen
Cold proud eyes
Of Cougar or Coyote
Watch me rise and go.

Light Writing

light write

Discovering something new is exhilarating, even if it is only new to you. It was my experimentation with the slow sync flash mode that led to a recent exhilaration. The slow sync flash mode allows a longer shutter speed to be used with flash. This creates the opportunity to gather more ambient light and also have the subject be in focus. This also makes it possible to see light trails.  I grabbed my most willing subject, a couple of flashlights, my camera and a tripod, and headed to the backyard one recent night. I envisioned the backyard daughter with some lines created next to her by her moving the lights around. We did that and realized there was enough time to try to write a word.

light write3The first attempt time ran out and the shutter closed before she was able to complete the word. But after readjusting the settings – making the aperture smaller therefore creating the need for a longer shutter speed, there was plenty of time.

light write2The first few times she wrote the word so that she would be able to read it (from her left to right or backwards for me) and I flipped the photo in Photoshop in order to be able to read it correctly. Then, she wrote backwards when we realized there was an abundance of time for writing. This very same daughter used to write messages in the steam on the shower door, backwards! We had such fun playing around with the lights and were delighted by how well it came out. Most cameras have a slow sync setting for the flash. I highly recommend checking your camera for it and getting shooting, signing off with a flourish. . .

light write1

~ Susan

Weekend Dish-Summer!

I know what you want.
Cherries. Peach juice dripping down your chin. Bare feet. Sandy toes.


You want 101 days of summer.
The countdown officially begins today. 5 p.m. Pacific Standard Time.

What will you do with these 2,420 hours, these 145,440 minutes, these 8,726,400 seconds of your one precious life?

There’s no way you’ll make a to-do list. You want a game.

Scavenger Hunt

Remember summer night scavenger hunts? You and your friends split into groups then set out in the neighborhood with a list? First one back with all the loot won?  Yeah. You’d like to try that again.

Take a photo of each of the 101 Days of Summer.
Post them on Instagram. Hash tag the photos with #backyardsisters_101days

Ready. Set. Go!

Epic BBQ

1. Perfect your go-to summer barbecue meal.
2. Learn a new grilling technique. For a great veggie grilling video, click here.
3. Invite a new neighbor for dinner.
4. Eat outside. Every night. Unless there’s thunder and lightening.
5. Eat by candlelight. Every night. Outside. Unless.
6. Sit on the grass with your dog’s head in your lap.
7. Watch fireflies.  If you catch them in a jar, be sure to let them out before you go to bed.
8. Learn 5 new objects in the night sky.  The free app SkyViewFree uses an i-phone’s camera as viewfinder.
9. Plan ahead to find a dark viewing spot for the Perseid Meteor Shower, August 11 and 12.  You’ll catch the summer’s best display of shooting stars. More info here.
10. Make your own ice cream. You don’t even need an ice cream maker. Check it out here.

11. Stay up late.
12. Get up early. Photograph your days.
13. Learn the names of 5 birds in your neighborhood.  The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has an amazing library of birdcalls. Link here.
14. Take your morning beverage on the porch, patio, or near an open window.
15. Prop your bare feet on a ledge.
16. Plant one living thing, even in a small pot if you don’t have a yard.
17. Plant something you can eat. A few green onions. Parsley. One tomato plant.
18. Visit a farmer’s market.
19. Take home something you’ve never eaten before.
20. Eat it.
21. Learn to make the perfect margarita or mojito or favorite frozen treat.
22. Invite neighbors over to help you drink it.

Gammy and girls

23. Visit your mom and dad.
24. Look at photos from childhood family vacations; yours and theirs.
25. Record favorite memories either on video or audio.
26. Visit your children.
27. Look at photos from family vacations; yours and theirs.
28. Record favorite memories.
29. Create a family yearbook of photos.
30. Do one thing that scares you.

get wet

31. Swim in a natural body of water.
32. Cannonball into the deep end of a pool.
33. Play Marco Polo.
34.  Learn one new water skill: surfing, body surfing, paddle boarding, water ballet moves.
35. Teach your new skill.
36. Pick fresh blueberries.
37. Make a summer fruit cobbler. For the Backyard Sisters favorite cobbler recipe, click here.
38. Eat dinner on a blanket under a tree.
39. Walk after dinner through town or your neighborhood.
40. Listen.
41. Hike a new trail.
42. Learn the names of 5 new native plants in your region.
43. Visit 3 new state parks. The rangers there will know the names of the plants.
44. Take a new friend with you.
45. Volunteer for a park clean-up day.
46. Tune your guitar, your piano, your cello, your drum, your voice.
47. Learn one solid song.
48. Lose your inhibition.
49. Make a campfire.
50. Sing under the stars.
51. Make s’mores.
52. Sleep under the stars.
53. Learn how to remove ticks from your dog. (Same concept applies to humans.) Great video here.

54. Sketch, photograph, or journal what distinguishes your local ecosystem from others.
55. Learn 5 edible plants.
56. Learn 5 poisonous plants.
57. Learn to pack lightly.
58. Learn to clean up after yourself.
59. Learn to read a map.
60. Get lost.
61. Go to a car show.
62. Attend your state or county fair.

stevenson quote

63. Submit something: homemade beer, photography, literature.
64. Hold hands on the Ferris wheel.
65. If you win a giant stuffed panda, give it away to a neighborhood kid.
66. Visit the booths with prize-winning pies and jams and wines.
67. Congratulate the blue-ribbon winners. Ask one fine question about their process.
68. Hear an outdoor concert.
69. Watch an outdoor movie.
70. Wait for the Milky way.
71. Visit your local library.
72. Remember summer reading when you were a kid? Check out ten books.
73. Visit an independent bookstore. Buy one thing.

74. Hear a live author reading.
75. Thank the author in person.
76. Perfect one aspect of your craft: Great openings. Killer closings. Trimming the fat from word count.
77. Slow dance under the Full Flower Moon on May 25.
78. Sip strawberry wine under the Full Strawberry Moon on June 23.
79.  Dance with abandon under the Full Thunder Moon on July 22.
80. Fish under the Full Sturgeon Moon on August 20.   For full moon name meanings, click here.
81. Invite neighbors over for a pancake breakfast.
82. Visit the housebound neighbor who couldn’t come.
83. Bring flowers, or stories, or one of your photos.

all birds and sand

84. Call your grandmother or grandfather or aunt or uncle or long lost cousin.
85. Tell them about the trees and birds and stars. Ask about the view from their window.
86. Ask about their favorite summer memory.
87. Remember to return your library books.
88. Lie on your back on the grass and watch the clouds.
89. Swing.
90. Swim again. Again. Again.

balcony art
91. Travel.
92. Learn five bits of history about one place you’ll visit.
93. Read before you go.  You can find a literary companion for more than 20 destinations from Whereabouts Press where the mission “is to convey a culture through its literature.”
94. Attend an outdoor art show.
95. Bike ride. On a beach cruiser. Along the beach if you’re lucky.
96. Learn hello, goodbye, please, thank-you and I love you in five new languages.
97. Learn how to come home.
98. Harvest and eat your one small thing standing barefoot on your own patch of ground, balcony, stone or wood.
99. Cut flowers from your yard. Take some to your neighbor.
100. Send an old fashioned hand-written note, with some herbs or fragrant leaves.
101. Set 5 small items – a shell, a rock, a poem – from your summer on your desk.


Last one done is a rotten egg.

The Weekend Dish – Bananas Foster

A banana tree was planted in this backyard sister’s backyard a few years ago. After noticing one in a neighbor’s front yard, and thus quelling any doubts we had about their ability to grow in our Southern California coastal climate, we decided to give it a try. Enlisting the help of a backyard son we chose a spot out near the vegetable garden, planted it and waited; with visions of Chiquita-like bananas available by a simple stroll out the back door. How excited we were when the first bunch appeared! When it turned, what we deemed a sufficiently yellow hue, we even more excitedly ran in to the house and prepared to consume this previously unimaginable treasure of a banana fresh off the tree. Peeling the tiny fruit was different from your average banana but with some effort it was accomplished and I took the first bite and was greeted by a chalky, slightly bitter, hard, dry banana. banana tree
A few chalky bananas later, we came to the conclusion that these bananas weren’t improving and were more like plantains and therefore in need of some cooking (and sugar and liquor and butter!)  Bananas Foster visions happily replaced the fresh off the tree visions. Not only is the dish delicious but it makes for an impressive sight when the bananas are flambéed right before serving.

bananas foster flameIt takes caution and finesse to execute this dish.

bananas foster flame1This definitely was an improvement for these bananas or plantains. Still, these were not the best bananas or even close. The banana tree tale ends a little sadly with the decision to remove it due to its rapid rate of growth causing infringement on the vegetable garden space and its production of little, dry, chalky fruit. The banana tree is, however what lead us to try this recipe and I am eternally grateful.

~ Susan

bananas foster

Bananas Foster

  • 1/4 cup butter (1/2 stick)
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 cup banana liqueur
  • 4 bananas, cut in half lengthwise, then halved
  • 1/4 cup dark rum
  • 4 scoops vanilla ice cream

Combine the butter, sugar and cinnamon in a flambé pan or skillet.
Place the pan over low heat, either on an alcohol burner or on top of the stove, and cook, stirring, until the sugar dissolves.
Stir in the banana liqueur, then place the bananas in the pan.
When the bananas soften and begin to brown, carefully add the rum.
Continue cooking until the rum is hot, but not boiling or the alcohol burns off and won’t ignite.
Using a long handled match or barbecue lighter ignite the rum using the fumes at the edge of the pan. Make sure you aren’t leaning over the pan and aren’t wearing loose clothes. Never pour alcohol from bottle onto flaming pan because this can cause an explosion.
When the flames subside, lift the bananas out of the pan and place over the ice cream in dishes.
Top with generous spoonfuls of the sauce and serve immediately. This is also a delicious topping for waffles or crepes.

You get what you need

Of course you can’t always get what you want. But one Wednesday night in the middle of a perfectly ordinary week you might get this:

The Rolling Stones: Forceful

Photo credit: Genara Molina, Los Angeles Times

If Mick and his pals aren’t too old to keep rocking, then I’m not too old for my first Rolling Stones concert. It’s not like I didn’t like live music the first time I wore a suede headband with feathers and beads. I sat so close to Elton John at the Inglewood Forum in 1974 that he took my hand and mouthed thank you for the hand scrawled “Elton Babe I love you!” poster I passed over the rail to him. I stayed on my feet all night long for The Who, Jethro Tull, Fleetwood Mac, David Bowie, Neil Diamond, Joe Walsh, and the Beach Boys enough times to be considered a groupie.  I’ve even seen Kanye West in concert. But The Rolling Stones? Not so much.

Why now? Falling for those skinny boys from Bloody Old took a long slow burn. Maybe it started at a frat party or a wedding when the fastest way to get everyone onto the dance floor was to blast “I (Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Boys shouted the words feeling misunderstood and restless as under-loved mongrels while we girls echoed the lyrics a hey, hey, hey, tipping our shoulders just enough to promise that maybe this would be the night that the “girl reaction” would be satisfying indeed.

When things ended badly “Get Off of My Cloud” gave us the perfect chorus to hitch up our thumbs and sing out at the top of our lungs of a serious need to be alone. If the Stones wanted a little space, “’cause two’s a crowd,” we did too.

Decades pass like dandelion dander and we find ourselves once again in the age of frequent weddings – this time our friends’ children. Any event with music and a dance floor  – cheesy New Year’s Eve parties, milestone birthday bashes, charity parties and backyard barbecues – is guaranteed to have a band covering epic Stones tunes or a DJ spinning them.  “Brown Sugar,” “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” and “Emotional Rescue” still pack the floor with lip-synching, lyric shouting dancers of our age, yes, but also children and grandchildren who know this music as well as their own. These songs are in our bones the way the ocean is.

I finally had to see The Rolling Stones with my own eyes, had to be in The Honda Center, Section 202, joining the roaring crowd of bleached blondes wearing ripped black and white striped pants and red sparkly circus shoes, of long white-haired ponytailed men in tye-dyed t-shirts, of a pink twirly skirted little girl holding her grandmother’s hand, and strangers on a first date, a dad taking his big brown-eyed daughter to her first concert – He’s the best dad ever! We all wanted to see the original before a man who’s “got the moves like Jagger” is all that’s left.

lights and mouth

Watching Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ron Wood, and the entire cast of characters that create The Rolling Stones “50 and Counting Tour” feels like standing on shore watching winter waves ceaselessly crash toward you. It’s an unstoppable force of nature that miraculously transcends time. I don’t feel so bad now that my rarely modernized dance moves pinpoint, like some sort of carbon dating science, that my teenage coming-of-age happened in the early 1970s. Mick still dances the same too.  Footage of Rolling Stones concerts is prevalent enough for the gyrating, wiry, clapping, finger waving, prancing, Jagger to be unsurprising. Yet when you are there miles further away than a TV camera close-up and you can still feel the power of the man then you wonder why you stayed away so long.

As the band tore into its signature concert-closing song, I peeked over at J as he pumped his right fist to the roof of the arena shouting along.  “I can’t get no-oh satisfaction.” Our eyes caught. I tipped my shoulder back just a bit and smiled before offering up a little hey, hey, hey to the rafters.

With fuzzy ears,

p.s. Genara Molino, photographer for Los Angeles Times captured far better photos than I could get from my seat in Section 202; view his slideshow here. But, from his fancy spot near the stage, he missed one thing.

A cool thing about arriving early was the chance to watch the spotlight team ascend from the back of the floor seats, right in front of sections 201 and 202. These guys spend the concert suspended by cable providing spots for the musicians.

light boys start

Object will move before show.

light boys up high

Indeed. On their way to the ceiling.

The Two Generation Piano in a Flash

A consequence of living in the same house for many years is that some things become fixtures without you noticing it. Until one day, for an unknown reason, you look around, really look around, and realize there are some remnants of childhoods long gone sitting abandoned in a long forgotten corner of a room. Then comes the tough decision of whether to save, donate or sell. A recently implemented policy of mine to donate or sell items not being used has prompted another recently implemented policy of photographing the items before giving them away – for memory’s sake. The toy piano which has provided countless hours of musical enjoyment and delight to me and my sisters and then our children is the subject of this realization. It made the first cut because it’s just so “cute” but there is that new policy I must adhere to if I am going to keep “stuff” to a minimum.  As I begin photographing, I decide to experiment with diffusing the on-camera flash (since flash is our theme this month). My intention is to add light to capture details without obtaining the harsh look and glare which often accompanies this type of flash. First, I took one photo without any flash, simply using the available window light.

kid piano no flash1 Next, I turned on the flash using the same settings,

kid piano w- flashthere is quite a difference. The details are now visible maybe a little too visible. Lastly, I put a piece of white paper in front of the flash to spread out the light (the same principle behind umbrellas and soft boxes in studios). A small diffuser which will affix to your camera can be purchased for this purpose but I chose to go the homemade route, which requires a tripod for freeing a hand to press the shutter.

kid piano diffused flashI like it and think it is a happy medium between the two previous pictures. I tried the sequence once more with a close up.

No flash,

no flash kid piano 1flash,

flash kid pianoand diffused flash.

diffused flash kid pianoI like the softer look of the diffused flash and think it can be especially beneficial when shooting portraits. Sometimes, the direct on-camera flash gives a harsh and not terribly flattering look to people. When indoors, it is often necessary to find ways to increase the light for proper exposure  of a subject and diffusing the on-camera flash is a pleasing method of accomplishing this.

As for the little toy piano, it will hopefully find a new home where it will provide more hours of delight, fascination and enjoyment to yet another generation.

Play on,

~ Susan

News “Flash”

Here we are in May all ready, a new month, and therefore a new photographic term to explore here at backyard sisters. This month we will be investigating flash. It may seem like an odd choice for me since I don’t have flash capability with my current camera set-up. However, I have in the past and am going to examine some of the the benefits and drawbacks of the use of flash. At this point, in my photography, I prefer to use the available light but, especially in the house at night, I find limitations to my ability to capture what I want. For the photos this month, I am borrowing my daughter’s Nikon D3000 which has a built-in flash.

The first scenario I want to consider is when your subject is in a darker area in front of a brightly lit area, such as a person in the shade of a tree with a sunny area behind them or inside the house in front of a window. In these cases, if you would like to have your subject and background in focus and visible it is necessary to use a flash.

monkey in windowLet me introduce today’s subjects – they are two well-loved monkeys which have been members of our family for twenty plus years. Chester and Sam, as we call them, were a gift to our sons from their great-grandparents. Through the years, they have turned up in various locations and poses throughout the house. Just recently, I found Sam resting in the window. In this first photo, I didn’t use a flash and in order to achieve the correct exposure of Sam, the background is blown out and unrecognizable.

monkey in window2You can have your subject slightly under-exposed and the background will come into focus a bit more but some times that is not the look one wants. So, the solution is to turn on your cameras flash.

monkey in window3This allows the subject to be well lit. A word of warning here though, when using a flash in front of a window you need to be careful to avoid the flash reflection from the window in your photo. The way to do this is to stand to the side of your subject or take the picture from a lower angle.

Not wanting to be left out, Chester joined the photo shoot.

2monkeys no flashThe first one without flash and then with.

2 monkeys in windowAs you can see, the yard is much more visible in the second.  Perhaps, they are taking a break after mowing the lawn with that mower out there. . .


~ Susan