I arrived at the same time as the mail. Instant recognition. Michelle, the mail-carrier, and I were old friends. We exchanged greetings and I said something about delivering the mail on a hot and windy day. “It’s a good job,” she said, “because I get to meet people like these,” as she nodded toward the yard I was entering. I was there to look in the owl boxes on the property.
I opened the gate in the chain link fence to the large backyard or was it a small farm? On one side was the iris collection. There was a multiplicity of colors and heights. Many, I was to learn, were rare and valuable. I walked a bit further and found the vegetables, the berries, the grapes, the fruit and nut trees. Lilly and Mick gave me big smiles and were happy to tell me about their recent visitor: A Western Screech-Owl. They had been throwing hamburger on the roof of their shed, hoping that would persuade the owl to stay. I doubted that would work, but I enjoyed their delight in having the owl in one of their boxes.
I have a camera-on-a-pole that I use to check nest boxes for the owl project Grand Valley Audubon has in the Grand Junction area. Typically, I turn it on as I’m walking to the box, insert it, give the receiver a quick look, turn around, turn off the camera, get back in the car and leave—takes about 3 minutes, but never at Lilly and Mick’s.
I have a lot of boxes to check. I’m usually in a hurry. I usually don’t check boxes on evenings or weekends because too many conversations, pleasant as they are, obstruct my time schedule.
This place was different. “When are they likely to be home and in the yard?” I would ask myself. I loved to learn about what they were growing. Their interest in the owl project was boundless. Typically, they would insist I take something home. One time it was a bag full of filberts. I didn’t even know they grew here. If it were fall, it would be some iris splits—some of which still grow in our yard. They also had a collection of cacti and succulents. Lilly was upset when the City did a redesign of the street in front of their house. The work left an unsightly barren area. The City said she could make a garden of it as long as she took care of it. She filled it with desert plants. Sometimes I found her out there working on them. The City even graced the area with a sign.
Sadly, Mick died in 2007 so most of my encounters have been solo with Lilly. She was a pioneer daughter—the first non-Indian family to live and ranch in NW Colorado, she told me. Mostly she was simply friendly and happy to discuss owls and ask about my family.
I used the owl project as an excuse to visit several times a year. I would decide one of her boxes needed to be repaired or moved giving me an excuse to stop by. Coming by for iris splits in the fall was another excuse.
Lilly would always run out excitedly to find out if she had an owl. She was so thrilled when I could show her one. I was more disappointed than she was when there was no owl because I didn’t get to experience her excitement. If I could have trapped one and relocated it on her property, I would have done so. Her health and energy declined. The last time I showed her an owl, she had been ailing and I had to hold and focus the binoculars because she didn’t feel able to walk back to the occupied box.
As the years went by, she told me a few stories of her pioneer upbringing. She told me her job as a small child was to protect the chicken feed from the sage grouse. She said, “Nic, those sage chickens, that’s what we called them, would darken the sky.” I responded. “Lilly, no one is ever going to see that again.” (The Greater Sage Grouse population declined approximately 97% during her lifetime.)
Another time she related how as a child; she went out to raid magpie nests because the county had set a bounty on their eggs. She was so small, she needed help to get on the horse, but was glad it was gentle enough to remain under the trees she had to climb to retrieve the eggs. The only problem was she forgot to bring any sort of container. She used her pockets. When she returned home scratched and bloody from climbing the messy trees favored by magpies, all the eggs were broken. She cried. “My mom felt sorry for me,” she said, “and gave me some money anyway.”
She always declined offers of help, saying she had a relative, a nephew, I believe, or else she had hired some help. She and Mick had no children. Over time the plantings flagged, and she would talk about a need to move. She lived alone on that property for 13 years after Mick died. Often, she would invite me in. I marveled at her artistry. Her home was full of her beautiful paintings and carvings. Even in her early 90s she was doing pieces to donate for fundraisers.
Just three years ago, when I walked into her backyard with my camera, she came to the door and called to me. I always stopped in for a visit, but this was special. She had painted a Western Screech-Owl on a plate as a gift for me.
I’ve been lucky enough to receive a couple of awards in my life, mainly for being in the right place at the right time. I have them on my wall too, but that plate—it’s my favorite! Rest in peace, Lilly McAnally! (Lilly died June 25, 2020 at age 92.)