Thursday, December 23, 2010

Oh Tannenbaum

     My large yellow and white cat, Tip, has taken up residence at the foot of the Christmas tree. He’s tucked between the shepherds who are keeping watch over their flocks and the stable where the baby Jesus lies. Tip loved the tree as soon as we pulled it upright, and now that I’ve added the manger scene, he sleeps beside the baby Jesus.
     I didn’t want a Christmas tree this year. My plan had been to go the easy route and buy a four foot tall, pre-lit fake. Then, Joe asked me what I wanted for my birthday and I surprised myself by asking for a trip to the mountain with the family to pick out a tree followed by a decorating party. I’m so glad I did. The spicy smell of the tree greets me every time I walk in the room and it’s loaded with ornaments that bring special memories to mind. Scott’s girlfriend laughed as we topped the tree with a fragile paper doily angel he crafted in Sunday School when he was six. It has a photograph of his face where the angel’s head should be and he is not smiling. His sullen expression contrasts so beautifully with the laciness of his angel attire, and his frown leaves no doubts. Boys don’t like wearing dresses. Then there’s the six inch cardboard circle carefully constructed by Justin when he was about ten. He cut a picture of a large white-tail buck out of a magazine and I can still see his serious expression as he glued it onto his ornament. He had picked the most beautiful thing he could find for decking the tree. Justin’s girlfriend, Rachel, hung it tenderly in a place of honor. The lights were wrapped around the top two thirds of the tree because all of my men are over six feet tall and, as they passed the lights from hand to hand around the tree, it never occurred to them to bend over. So, the tree has a haphazard look.
     But, I don’t envy my neighbor’s carefully constructed Christmas trees: lights placed just so, fragile glass ornaments which emerge from layers of fluffy tissue paper, color schemes that match the furniture. My tree is lopsided, but Justin picked it out. We took a truck up through the snowy field to the base of the mountain. Joe, Lori my neighbor, and I rode in the front, while Justin and Scott bounced in the back. When the slick snow stranded us, we jumped out and walked the rest of the way up the mountain. Scott was distracted by coyote tracks, but Justin strode up the steep face of the mountain with the chainsaw perched on his shoulder and within minutes I heard the welcome growl of the saw coming to life. It wasn’t long before he slid back down the hill with the tree in tow.
     Our Christmas tree is a cedar. It was prickly to decorate and it was shaped by deer and wind, so it has a large hole on one side, but the smell and memories of the harvest make up for that. It’s not at all like our first tree. For the very first Christmas tree of our married life, I convinced Joe to go to a tree farm. I had definite ideas about what the tree should look like but Joe, having never bought a tree before, was appalled by the prices. We argued from tree to tree and when we finally brought one home it was pretty, but there was no joy in its branches. The next year we went to the mountain. I couldn’t find a perfect tree, but we weren’t paying money for it, so it didn’t matter. We laughed as we trekked around the mountain surveying our lopsided choices, and the tree that decorated our living room that year carried that laughter with it.
     Ever since then, our trees have come off the mountain. I think Tip likes lying under this one because it was picked out with such joy. I hope the baby Jesus feels it, too.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Christmas Love

     Orion is sprawled across the southeastern rim of the sky with his trusty dog Sirius at his heel. All of the winter stars twinkle with a cold blue light. The first sifts of what I call a sugar snow drifted from the clouds today, but they are clearing and leaving behind a sparkly sky that reflects the whirls of snow that fly up like feathers when we step out. Joe and I are headed to town to decorate the shop for Christmas. We have in mind a tool-themed Christmas tree for the big plate glass window and the van is piled with lights and the scratchy limbs of the artificial tree I used twenty years ago to display the ornaments I sold. It was up in the attic with all of the other memories gathering dust beneath the eaves. The walnut cradle I made that rocked both my boys to sleep. The wooden crib they slept in after that. An old high chair. Boxes of toys and books set aside for the grandchildren we hope to have one day. The odds and ends we took out of the house when we were remodeling. So much love tucked up there.
     Love is the bravest thing most of us do in our lives. To love something means to be willing to take the inevitable pain of loss that will surely follow. This has been on my mind since Gus disappeared. But it’s not just Gus. Perhaps part of aging is that we begin to recognize that loss will surely happen in our lives. Joe and I are at such a sweet spot in our relationship. We are best friends and the hours fly when we are together. We have raised two fine boys and launched them out into the world, and although we miss them, we now have time to turn again to each other.
     When we park the van in the town full of Christmas magic, we step out into a quiet night lit by swags of lights and the glitter of softly falling snow. We hold hands and my heart fills to bursting. This is love and in this season of God’s love I want to drink my fill. After the tree is decorated, we drive home listening to Christmas carols on the radio station. The snow has stopped but the roads are icy and halfway down the mountain we are flagged to a stop by a state trooper. His blue lights intermittently light the crumpled side of a pick-up truck that has just been hauled over the steep edge of the mountain. There is a big hole in the windshield and for just a moment before I can see it clearly, I panic at the thought that it might be Justin’s truck. I have been to the site of accidents that both of my boys have been involved in and the dread lurch and pound of my heart will never quite go away. And, although it’s not Justin’s truck, I know some mother’s child has just been pulled from the brink.
     When we get home, Justin calls his dad to tell him about his day. When they hang up,  I call Scott, who is on a college road trip with friends. I remind him to buckle up and tell him I love him. Then I step out onto the porch into the frosty night and look up. Above my house, Orion still sails across the winter sky. The Christmas stars remind me. God sent His son, so I am not afraid. Love has no end.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Day After Thanksgiving

     For those who want to know, Gus is still missing.  I am sad about it, but looking forward, not backwards.  What a gift to have enjoyed such a happy, free-spirited, loving little beagle.  If he is still alive somewhere, I am praying that he has found a good home where his keen sense of loyalty and fun will be fully appreciated.

     Joe and I travelled to Staunton today to pick up chicken feed.  Around every turn in the road we saw deflated Christmas decorations sprawled in soggy brown yards.  They looked like the aftermath of a drive-by shooting.  I know, I know.  You have to wait until night for the magic to begin.  That's when these scraps of cloth and thread rise to glow on lawns like blimpy aliens from a nylon planet. They are kind of neat, then, but really does the baby Jesus have to be right next to Sponge Bob on the lawn?  And it's a little creepy to have a ten foot snowman towering over the manger.  This time of year, right after Thanksgiving makes me a little cranky.  America is so conflicted about this "holiday season."  We're not even allowed to say the word Christmas in school anymore and I love Christmas carols, but I don't want to hear them as the background music to advertisements for chocolate and sodas and cars and ipods.  That's why I wrote this song.  It reminds me to keep my eyes on the main thing.  Hope it helps you, too.

The day after Thanksgiving, Christmas shopping begins
We can’t forget Aunt Myrtle or her husband Uncle Ben
We must find the perfect present for each person on our list
It’s critically important and no one must be missed

We wear ourselves to shadows of our former jolly selves
We shop like Martha Stewart and we work like Santa’s elves
We decorate and bake and clean and decorate some more
We’ve got to match the beauty of our neighbor’s house next door

Children whine and whimper and they drag their folks around
From computer store to toy store they shop all around the town
They long for something special that will really thrill their heart
They think that they will find it at the local Walmart

Christmas presents stacked beneath a lovely Christmas tree
Christmas presents PILED UP HIGH, are all of those for me?
Christmas presents wrapped in paper, tied up with a bow
Gimme, what’d ya get me? I just really have to know

A tiny babe wrapped up in a handmade cloth of love
The shepherds wonder at the angels singing up above
The wise men cross the desert as they travel from afar
To find the baby savior sleeping underneath the star

A Christmas present in a manger underneath a tree
A present sent from heaven, is it really just for me?
A Christmas present wrapped in love and placed into a stall
God sent His love at Christmas—a gift for one and all.

So when I hear commercials and see Santas all around
Or hear the registers ringing as the shoppers rush through town
I just turn my head and listen to the angel’s distant song
Joy to the world….
And then I sing along….

A Christmas present in a manger underneath a tree
A present sent from heaven, is it really just for me?
A Christmas present wrapped in love and placed into a stall
God sent His love at Christmas—a gift for one and all

As we begin the Advent season, I hope you hear angels around every corner singing "Joy to the World."

Saturday, November 20, 2010


     My beautiful little rabbit beagle Gus is missing. He was born on the farm and raised by my side. When I pulled into my driveway every evening, Gus would stop whatever he might be doing and pound across the yard with a happy grin, ears flapping, tail whapping, to meet me. He would sit patiently at my car door until I gathered everything up and then place his front paws on my legs for an ear scratching before following me to the house. He could fetch a ball, sit on command, catch food in mid-air, circle, and walk on two legs but his favorite activity was jumping straight up in the air like he had pogo sticks where his pads should have been. As I walked back to feed the other dogs at night, he would bound along beside me, jumping up so his nose was almost as high as mine every few steps and laughing as he landed. Then, he danced his joy and ran it in ever widening speed circles around me.
     The yard is empty and so is my heart. It’s my fault he’s gone. I didn’t tie him up when hunting season started. Last year, I remembered to chain him until the season passed, but I forgot this year. He was last seen chasing a fox across our neighbor’s mountain on Saturday morning a week ago. Various school children have reported sighting him on Monday morning sniffing his way across a field several miles north of here but I have canvassed all my neighbors to the north and no one has seen him since then.
     Most people think that dogs can run free in the country, but that’s not generally the case. Two dogs working together can wreak havoc on a sheep flock and generally one or both end up shot. Maybe Gus found another canine friend and provoked the ire of a farmer. If so, then I can’t be mad. I’ve seen the damage dogs do to sheep. It’s not pretty. But, I don’t think that’s what happened. There’s only one flock of sheep near us and Glen would have let us know if our dog was around.
     Maybe Gus crawled through a fence and was snagged by a coyote snare. Coyotes are ravaging the last flocks in the county and snares are one of the few ways farmers have found to create a line of safety in wire fences. But, dogs get caught in them, too. When Gus was a pup, he disappeared for a day. I discovered him just a quarter mile from the house caught in a neck snare. He had been chained before, so rather than struggling against the snare he lay down patiently to wait. It saved his life. When I found him he howled pitifully but he didn’t move. I remember trying to free him and after several unsuccessful attempts to trip the latch, running screaming to the house for Joe. Gus never moved until Joe got back and cut him loose. So, if he’s in a snare, he’s been lying there a long time waiting. But, we’ve let our neighbors who set snares know he is gone and no one has found him,  so I don’t think that’s where he is either.
     He could have been shot by a hunter, angry at a happy little dog who chased deer for sport, never catching them, but running until his tongue scraped the ground. Hunters have been known to do things like that. They've also been known to steal dogs.
     Gus was a handsome dog. He might have been snagged by a hunter who thought he scored a prize. Good rabbit beagles are worth some money and Gus would hunt rabbits tirelessly when he could roust them out. I hope that’s what happened, but what I cling to is the hope that he’s just still hunting and has found a kind soul to feed him who doesn’t yet know my pal is gone. Every morning I wake up and run to the window, hoping to see him prancing across the lawn. Every evening I stand on the hill and call, hoping he’ll hear me and decide to come home.
     I should have kept him tied. His mother and aunt are tied and only leave the chains to hunt or trade off for a day of freedom. Our chains are long and light. The dogs can touch noses and have plenty of water and shade, chickens to watch and a good ear-scratching each night as they are fed. But, still, I hate a dog on a chain. Gus was free because he was my buddy, and now he’s gone and I miss him very much.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Staff of Life

     The bread I had for supper was over forty years old and still moist and delicious. The sourdough starter that I used to make it was given to me by my dear friend Lucy, who brought it to Virginia with her in 1978. She doesn’t know how old her starter was because it was given to her by a friend who may have gotten it from another friend and so on. I like to imagine that perhaps there are some pioneer bacteria quietly exhaling CO2 into the jar where they rest in my fridge.
     I had never tried to make bread with sourdough starter before Lucy graced me with a jar and at first I was a little nervous. I didn’t want to be the person who let the legacy expire. But it turns out that sourdough critters are very forgiving. They languish in my fridge for up to a week at a time requiring nothing from me at all. On Friday nights, I take them out, feed them a little flour and water, and let them warm to room temperature until they are waltzing with the wild yeasts that live among them and pumping up their respiration a bit. In return for the favor, they raise my sponge ( a technical bread term for the bowl of warm fermenting batter). The beauty of sourdough is that I can let the sponge rise all night. In the morning I add more flour, some oil, salt, sugar and water and knead it to a spankable softness, that slowly burps and gurgles in my big bowl all day until it is double in size. If I’m not ready to bake bread on Saturday night, I just punch it down and let it rise again until Sunday morning when I make fresh rolls for breakfast.
     When I first moved to the mountains I really didn’t know much about cooking at all. Determined to impress Joe, I made bread one Saturday afternoon right after we met. While the flour floating around in the air was light and fluffy, my bread was not. I worked for years trying out different recipes and never coming close to the moist, light bread that my mother in law turned out consistently week after week. She didn’t have a recipe because she’d been mixing bread in the same blue enamelware bowl since she was five years old. She just knew when it looked right.
     Yeasts are not patient. They rise fast and can overdevelop the gluten in the finished bread product if they aren’t monitored. When I discovered sourdough, I found my missing ingredient. It is slow and patient and very, very forgiving.

Jesus is often referred to as the “bread of life.” I’m sure He must be sourdough.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Risky Business

     I participated in risky behavior this past weekend. Because I live cupped in a valley between lots of mountains, I see more sheep than people in a day. But, I want to publish a children’s book and I’ve discovered that one of the realities in the publishing world is the necessity for networking. So this past weekend, I pulled on my big girl panties and travelled to the Society of Children’s Book Writers Mid-Atlantic conference in Arlington, VA. I saw more people on Friday than I have seen in the past six years and that was just the ones I passed on the interstate during rush hour.
     Then on Saturday, I spent the day with 300 other aspiring and some “yeehaw I’ve made it!” authors. They were all lovely people. I heard Lisa Yee (a highly published and popular author) speak and listened to agents and editors talk about how to make it in this business. I had my first ever face to face meeting with a delightful agent, who although she wasn’t interested in my book, still made me feel hopeful. I had lunch with a new found friend who gave me the name of her editor at a magazine I’ve been trying to crack. I collected artist’s cards and studied portfolios so I could spiff mine up. I ate homemade pizza on an urban front porch with good friends and watched what appeared to be UFO’s fizzling across the sky. It was truly a great weekend. And, I moved outside of my comfort zone for a while.
     As I grow older, I want to be sure to break out of my rut, even though it’s a beautiful one, every once in a while. My grandmother, Nana, was always forward looking and eager for a new adventure. She lived to be 102 and even though she went to heaven to give God some pointers a while ago, I still feel her lively curiosity. Nana quoted Shakespeare to me every chance she got, which guaranteed that I was sometimes a little big for my britches. I’m embarrassed to admit that at ten years of age, I could be heard saying things like, “Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” Nana was also dogged and passionate when she wanted to make something happen and I am trying to channel that confidence. So, Nana, even though my trip wasn’t as successful as I had hoped, I’m not giving up. The world’s mine oyster, which I with sword will open.
Readers, what have you done lately that caused your heart to beat a little faster?

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Daily LLama

     The predators move ever closer. I have seen more bears this year than all my years living here put together. Coyotes howl on the ridge tops and we shepherds anxiously count our sheep each morning. We’ve lost 16 this year, another neighbor has lost 15, and yet another 13. There are bones scattered in every meadow and pasture. The local trapper announced at a recent meeting that these wily canines and hungry ursines are here to stay and we will just have to find a way to coexist. Some farmers are penning their sheep every night, others are using llamas and Great Pyrenees dogs as sentries in their flocks and others are just giving up.
     Coyotes are cruel hunters. They kill by biting the ewe or lamb in the neck and then hanging on until the animal suffocates. I don’t think I would mind it so much, if they would just eat what they kill, but often they eat a chunk or two and then move on. At least bears drag the lambs off and bury them for future meals.
     My neighbor, Cindy, has been penning her lambs each night in a small lot with snares set in the areas where a coyote might creep through the fence, but the coyotes are avoiding those holes and digging new ones to get to the sheep. She was in tears the other day as she told me about the loss of her five year old daughter’s pet lamb. Cindy hasn’t broken the news to her, yet. Instead, she went and bought a guard llama. The llama comes with a guarantee. If a coyote succeeds in getting past its hooves and head then the vet who sold it to Cindy will replace it with another or refund her money. This is a serious business. But Cindy’s daughter is interested in her new and strange looking pet because it is cute. The llama stands a whole sheep taller than the ewes it guards. His neck rises above them like a periscope and he is constantly turning his head and flicking his ears as he scans for danger. His name is Charlie and although he lost a lamb the first night, he has since bonded with the flock and fought off all predators. Cindy told me that the first time Charlie saw a black Angus cow, he charged it. Her guess is that the cow looked too much like a bear for Charlie’s taste. The sheep follow along behind Charlie in a single file line. When he moves to greener pastures, they parade behind as he leads them safely through the valley of the shadow of death.
     The sheep have come to trust the llama and it seems their trust is well placed. So, another of my neighbors may stay in business after all. In a community that seems constantly under threat from a spiraling economy and an ever-encroaching predator population, that is good news indeed.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The View from the Bus

     Last night I peed in the woods and slept in a bus and I wasn’t even at Woodstock. Joe and I spent the day repairing the board fence that keeps the cows out of my garden and yard. There were posts to replace, boards to prime and paint to scrape. At 4:00 when our arms were sore and our tempers short, we called it quits and packed up for a campout in the bus at the top of the mountain.
     Two years ago, Joe bought an old school bus at a surplus sale. It had been his dream for some time to convert one into a hunting camp. After a week spent painting the exterior forest green, Joe and the boys built four bunk beds, a small eating area, and a kitchen counter. This bout of interior decorating was capped by the installation of a tiny wood burning stove. Joe drove the bus up the incredibly steep path to the top of the mountain on the eastern edge of our property. He parked it so it commands a majestic view of the lower part of the Bullpasture Valley.
     The boys had spent two hunting seasons up there, but I had never had the opportunity to spend the night. The weather was beautiful. High blue skies contrasted with the trembling orange and yellow fall leaves. A Red Tailed hawk screamed overhead as it drifted on the thermals. We drove the logging road to the top of the ridge and unloaded our few supplies into the bus. Then we hiked up the holler to the watering hole and followed some old logging roads to the top of the mountain. We visited Brent’s pond, which is almost completely dry and then trekked southwest into the setting sun until we reached the high meadow. Perched on rocks at the edge of the field, we admired the one hundred eighty degree view of the surrounding mountains which undulate endlessly to the west. Views like that always remind me of how big my God is.
     As the sun slid below the last mountain we turned downhill and headed back to the bus. Our legs were trembling with exhaustion and it was completely dark by the time we reached it, but Joe ran these mountains as a young boy chasing coons in the moonlight, so I knew I could just follow him home. After a supper of warm pork tenderloin sandwiches, chips and beer, we talked into the dark until finally we were yawning more than conversing. Then, we crawled into the tiny bunks and fell asleep to the distant sound of dogs barking in the village below. At midnight, when Joe returned from a brief trip to the woods, he stood at the bus window and I rose to join him. The moon rising in the east behind us was casting a brilliant light on the ridges below. We crawled back into our cozy beds, refreshed and bone tired and slept until the sun woke us. After another brief hike down to Dark Holler, we packed up and bumped our way home.
     This was my second hike of the weekend.  On Friday, I stopped in Ramsey's Draft at the foot of the Shenandoah Mountain and hiked a small portion of the trail there.  I am planning a field trip to the area for my students and wanted a chance to check it out.  The path there follows the stream bed,which was almost completely dry from the continued drought.  I did find several small pools of crystal water and although I didn't drink any, I have read that it is so pure, that I could have.  Justin has hunted all through the Ramsey's Draft area and before I left, he jokingly offered me one of his dog's tracking collars, so if I got lost the signal could be used to find me.  He cautioned me not to leave the main trail because the wilderness there is deep and tricky with lots of false hollers. More than one hiker has spent several cold and lonely nights there waiting for rescue. I only walked thirty minutes in and thirty minutes back out so I wasn't in danger, but I also didn't reach the virgin timber tucked deep into the heart of the valley.  I would like to go back soon and try to find it.

It is a privilege to live in a place where the best vacations can be found right out my back door.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Words and Bread

     When I first moved to Highland County, my principal suggested that I learn where all of my students lived. He wanted me to understand some of the remote and rugged places that they called home. So, I hopped in my car and started looking for their houses, but I couldn’t find them. One set of directions said to go three miles up Straight Creek until I reached the Forks of the Water.  Then I should turn left on the Blue Grass Road and follow it until I reached the road to Laurel Fork.  Seemed simple enough, but although all of the roads in the county had names, none of them sported a road sign. The locals and old timers knew which road was Possum Trot and which one was Seldom Seen, but county maps only listed roads by route numbers. When I finally mastered most of the place names and the people attached to them, I felt like I was officially a member of the community. Then, the government required us to post street signs on all the roads so the rescue squads and firemen could come to our rescue, even though they already knew where we lived. Even my quarter mile driveway was marked by a brown sign. And of course there were arguments as folks tried to determine if the street signs should read “hollow”-(definition--empty space), or “holler” (definition--friendly yell.) Hollow won out over the more poetic local vernacular. Many of the place names were changed or replaced.
     Last weekend I attended a happy reunion on the tree lined shores of Camp Hanover. Several of us climbed into a tree house high over the tannic brown lake and recalled the language of the magical summers we spent there. We talked of  Mystery Lake, the P-fer Teepee, Vesper Dell, the monkey bridge, the Trading Post, the sawdust pile, the snake pit and Fairy Land. We remembered drinking bug juice, initiating the innocents into the Honey Bee Society, listening to John tell stories about “Our Elephant,” and “Old Roanie,” going on dry runs across the lake and kneeling reverently to light a fire. The words were enough to carry us, if only for a moment, back to the firefly nights of sleeping in hogans, making s’mores, and gathering on rainy nights in the Kirkwoods.
     But, like the road names in Highland, some of our words have been lost or replaced by a new vernacular which will resonate in the same way in thirty or so years for another bunch of old friends who, like us, will come back to hike the lake and speak the words that evoke such rich memories. And like me, they will be fed.
Evening has come. The board is spread. Thanks be to God who gives us bread. Praise God for bread.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Dog Days and Snake Skins

     At 2:30 this morning, I stomped out to the back forty dressed in nothing but my little blue nightgown and Muck boots. The fog was backlit by a full moon and I walked through liquid silver as I crossed the culvert to the dog houses where I stood for a moment and listened to the distant bugling of my beagle, Sandy. I had let her off her chain at sundown so she could get a little exercise while the chickens were cooped up for the night. Sandy is too fond of white meat for me to let her loose when they are free ranging in the field. Gus, who was still tied, had been howling since 12:00 as he listened to her merry chase and I despaired of getting any sleep unless I moved him to the house to spend the night on the mud porch. I hoped that he would be quiet there.
     When I hopped out of bed to retrieve my loud hound, I wasn’t too happy about a midnight stroll. But, standing in that magical mist, I was glad I’d been forced out. As I listened to my beagle’s howl floating through the fog I could tell that she was running towards me. Rabbits run in a wide arc and Sandy’s singing got louder as she came full circle.
     Closer by, crickets chirped in the grass. My twenty-eighth year of teaching started last week and as always it was heralded by choruses of crickets in the fading meadow and yard. This is a bittersweet time of year. The garden is pumping out produce at a rate faster than I can keep up with and my freezer and cellar are fat with tomatoes, peaches, beans, corn, beets and pickles. But school has started and cold weather is just around the corner. The warm freedom of summer days has come to an end.
     Houdini, the snake who escaped from my room last week, was recovered under a trash can across the hall. As soon as I put him back in the terrarium, he shed his skin. Vernon, our school janitor said it was another sign of the approaching fall. He said snakes shed when the dog days have ended. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but because he had been without food for almost two weeks, I brought the snake home and turned him loose where I had found him. In a blink of an eye, he disappeared into his home hole.
     This is also the time of year when parents all around the county are prodding their children to finish 4-H projects. While Joe and I miss helping our kids with their animal projects, we don’t miss the tension of pushing them to complete their barn displays before midnight. Still, when a neighbor child calls, looking to borrow a lead rope, or a hog waterer, or a halter, Joe is always happy to help.

     So, here we are, empty nesters. Like the singing dog and the shedding snake, we’ve come full circle. I wonder what the next round will bring.

Monday, August 23, 2010


     Somewhere in my classroom a snake is learning to read. Two weeks ago, when we were cleaning up the yard, Joe lifted the vinyl grill cover off the ground and discovered a small ring neck snake curled in the dirt below.
     Hearing Joe’s exclamation, I hurried over and when I saw the snake, I scooped it up and dropped it into a large plastic jar that I keep for such marvelous surprises. I layered some soil, moss and rocks in the jar and the snake slithered into hiding. I planned to take the snake to school and keep it in my classroom for a couple of weeks. Then after all learning opportunities had been exhausted, I would return the snake to the spot where it first saw the light.
     I Googled “Ring Neck Snake” and the information that I found was encouraging. These snakes are shy but they make good pets. They need a place to hide, a shallow dish of water and an occasional snack of small invertebrates. Their favorite meal is salamanders. I strolled around my yard lifting rocks and logs until I uncovered some worms, crickets and a small black and yellow spotted newt. Perfect. I had a snake smorgasbord. The critters were dropped into the jar but the snake didn’t seem interested in the menu.
     Five days later, the only thing the snake had eaten was the tip of the salamander’s tail. Worried, I returned to Google and discovered that my snake’s milky eyes meant it was getting ready to shed. Snakes lose their appetites as their skin gets too tight.
     On Wednesday, I took the snake to school and it was a big hit that night at the sixth grade orientation. On Thursday, the biology teacher offered me a bigger home for it and I transferred the snake into a ten gallon terrarium. At this point, the Ring Neck’s eyes were almost completely opaque. I anticipated finding a freshly shed skin on Friday morning.
     What I didn’t anticipate was finding an empty terrarium. I wiggled my fingers through the rich loam. Perhaps the snake was burrowed deeply in the dirt. I turned over leaves, moss and rocks and uncovered the salamander, crickets and worms. But, there was no sign of the snake. The small opening between the glass sides and glass top of the aquarium must have been large enough for the slithery Houdini to escape. But where did it go? The last thing I needed on the first day of school was gaggles of girls leaping up on their desks when the snake reappeared. I crawled around on my hands and knees and looked everywhere, but the snake was gone.
     The students came for the first day of school today. They asked about the snake. I told them that I took it home. Yes, on the first day of school, I told a big, fat lie, but it’s better than the alternative. There are some students who wouldn’t come into my room if they thought a snake might drop out of the ceiling for a visit.

Somewhere in my English class a snake is learning to read. I hope it learns to spell EXIT.

photo courtesy Julie Williams

Thursday, August 12, 2010

A Peach of A Day

I spent a day last week putting up the bushel of peaches Joe and I picked up on our anniversary trip.  This is just a little pictorial of all the fun.

     First thing with peaches is to wash them.  Don't you love my old-fashioned porcelain sink?  The drainboard is slightly slanted so every drop of water slips back to the drain.  Plus just a little bleach keeps it sparkling white. 
     Anyway, after I washed the peaches, I dipped them in a big pot of boiling water for about thirty seconds, then I dumped them into a sink full of cold water.  The skins slipped right off.  I chose to slice my peaches this year, but sometimes I just skin, pit and halve them.

Once the peaches were washed and sliced, I made a weak syrup of one part sugar to two parts water and heated it to boiling.  Then the peaches were packed into the jars, the syrup poured over them, the hot lids put on and screwed down, and the jars processed in a steam canner for just a few minutes.

This is my big, scary canner.  It was one of the best wedding gifts I got.  The first time I used it, I hid in the next room so if it exploded I wouldn't be hit with flying beans.
Some of the peaches were also packed into freezer boxes with the leftover syrup.  As you can see, these boxes have been used for years.  I can't even find this kind in stores anymore.

And then of course, there's our favorite way to eat peaches.
One bushel of peaches yielded 32 pints in the freezer or cellar, two bags of fresh peaches for friends, a week's worth of peaches to eat fresh out of hand and of course, one peach pie.

In addition to peaches this week, I put up the following:

A great week of harvest!  Only tomatoes and beets to go.
Happy Summer!

Thursday, August 5, 2010


     Those who know the secrets of the dirt are leaving us. The hardworking sweaty browed farmers who could pick up a fistful of soil and tell when it was ready for seed, or point to a furrowed patch and say, “That is the best spot for onions in the garden,” are dying and their children are selling the land because farming is just too hard and doesn’t pay particularly well. The former vegetable gardens and apple orchards and timothy grass pastures are being buried beneath housing developments that have sprouted up on former meadows like mushrooms on cow pies. What’s been built can’t be unbuilt.
     Joe and I just returned from a four day anniversary trip through the central and western sections of Virginia. We were appalled by sprawl. We found battlefield land preserved in narrow strips that were bounded on either side by shopping malls, housing developments and storage units. We climbed Lee’s Hill in Fredericksburg and stood with our backsides practically in someone’s storage shed as we gazed out on what used to be pasture but is now a commercial district. We drove scenic routes that showcased run down farms and encroaching malls. And, we were sad. Living in our little forgotten gem of a county, where there is only one blinking stoplight and whether or not to build a Dollar General was a much debated topic, has spoiled us. We gaze daily on cows and sheep and rolling, vibrant pastures so it is understandable that we found most of the scenic routes a bit of a letdown. But we were shocked by how fast it is all disappearing.
     We drove on roads that used to be lined with daisies and chickweed and are now lined with malls and we wondered why we need so many of them. What is everyone buying? And the even bigger question is: What will everyone eat when all the farms are gone?

Friday, July 30, 2010

A Shepherd's Devotion

Question: What goes stomp, stomp splat? Answer: Me, running after sheep this morning and doing a nosedive into a pile of poo. It’s never easy when it’s time to move animals and this morning was no exception. In fact, this morning was day 2 of a round-up that started yesterday.

Day 1
Joe and I wake our teenage son as soon as the fog rises off the mountains. Son jumps on four-wheeler and zips up the driveway and out to road while his parents poke along behind in the truck. When everyone is successfully assembled at the gate-we-hope-to-bring-sheep-through, son and father enter the field of battle while I wait on the road. The tried and true strategy is that Scott will travel up and down hills, rounding up sheep and funneling them down the holler to his father who is waiting below rattling a grain bucket. I am stationed on the south end of the road to prevent the sheep from travelling to town. This is the way it usually works, but today, the sheep have apparently been sucked into a giant space ship by mutton-busting aliens. They are nowhere to be found. Not on our land, not on our neighbor’s land, not on our neighbor’s-neighbor’s land. Joe and Scott search for an hour while I sit on the grain bucket out on the road. Then we go home to eat breakfast. Sometime's it’s best to just wait things out.
Day 2-
Same wake up scenario but, this time, the sheep are clearly visible across the road. We must make haste before the sheep abducting aliens return. Son zips out driveway followed closely by parents in pick up. There’s no time to lose. Son speeds through the gate-we-hope-to-bring-sheep-through and successfully corners the flock, turns them and sends them out the gate. It is a brilliant, hair-raising ride on steep hills. The sheep barrel out into the road, but unfortunately it’s only one half of the flock. The other half is a whole hill behind. Before they can all reunite, the first group changes its mind and EWE-turns in the middle of the road and barrels through the newly arrived flock. They all scatter up a very steep, very wooded hill. Joe throws the grain bucket after them. It doesn’t help.
Day 2- continued
Joe runs straight up the hill while Scott guns the four-wheeler and careens up the holler to head the sheep off at the pass. I run up the other hill and do my face plant in the poo. The sheep watch us warily from the woods and slowly, slowly, oh how slowly, we coax them down. Like wooly pendulums they vacillate up and down between the hills until finally they make the turn and stream through the gate-we-want-to-move-them-through. Joe runs back down the hill, grabs his bucket and walks down the road, shaking the ten corn kernels left in it. Convinced that he has a banquet in that bucket, the sheep follow. Once they are on the road they lose interest and weave back and forth plunging down the steep shoulder on the right and climbing the steeper shoulder on the left. I follow them and the audience of drivers waiting in their cars behind us is treated to the sight of a 49 year old woman belly sliding backwards down the shaley slope. The sheep watch from above and when I land at the bottom, leap over me to tip tap docilely down the road. They wend their way to the turn-off stopping to taste every wildflower before they hop through the meadow gate. Scott follows them on his four-wheeler while we race up the driveway to open the gate at the other end where we finally bring the sheep home.

The Bible often refers to humans as sheep and Christ as our shepherd. Every time I work with sheep I am reminded of this.  Makes you think, doesn't it?

Friday, July 23, 2010

Run to the Light

The sun has just peeked up over the mountains, so I slip on my garden clogs and head out to weed. The plants are cool and wet with dew and that old bob white is up bright and early letting me know he is around. I whistle back and forth with him for a minute or two while I rest on the handle of my hoe.
     The early morning sun is suspended in a soft fog that burns off as I work. The garden is going great guns. The corn is tasseling, the broccoli is crowning, the squash are burgeoning and the beans are blooming. Looks like my cellar will be full this winter. But, right now I am full of a gardener’s kind of contentment. I am already filthy and I haven’t even had breakfast, yet. Damp dirt clings to my fingers as I practice the art of weed and shake meditation. Pull a weed, shake the dirt from its roots, toss it on a pile to wilt in the sun. Pull a weed, shake the dirt…well, you get the rhythmic picture.
     The sun defeats the last of the fog and I feel the heat on my back as sweat drips off my nose. I don’t mind. I love the summer because of the sun. I am like the plants in my garden always happiest in its radiant light.
     Yesterday, I spent some time, out of the light, in a wild cave in West Virginia. Caroline and I took a ride with some of her relatives to the Sinks of Gandy (don’t you just love that name?) It’s a remote, ruggedly beautiful area of Randolph County. We travelled a private road that stretched across ten miles and five gates to her aunt’s property tucked in a sea of towering, grassy meadows. The feeling was the same one I get when I stand at the edge of the ocean and watch breakers rolling in from the distant sky.
     Then after a packed picnic lunch that included fresh cucumbers, potato salad, watermelon slices, homemade peach jam, and (heavenly days) homemade coconut cream pie, we gathered some interesting rocks, resisted the urge to nap, and drove another ten miles across vast wilderness to a place where the Gandy River ran into a hill and disappeared, only to reappear almost a mile to the north.
     Caroline had been through this cave twice and wanted to explore it again. I was happy to finally get a chance to go through a cave I’d heard so much about. We left her family at the misty entrance and turning our beams to the darkness, followed the water inside. The happy sound of our splashy footsteps bounced from one wall to the other as we sloshed upstream and our flashlight beams soared up to an arched dome of a ceiling. It wasn’t long before the giggling stream dodged under some boulders and we were forced to climb up and over the tumbled remains of floods and ceiling drops. We turned off our flashlights and spent a moment in the dark. The only sound was our breathing and the gurgle of the creek on the other side of the rocks.
     The plan was to follow the water all the way out to the other side, but the water never reappeared. We clambered around a stagnant pool of foam and sticks, and we waded through a dark, cold spring-fed pond, but the stream eluded us and soon we couldn’t even hear its happy song. Caroline was all for pressing forward, even though her memories of the cave didn’t match the reality. My rising sense of panic overruled her. My head was screaming in my ears about death and being buried alive. We turned around and realized that we weren’t sure exactly how to go back. There were several paths to choose from.
     With our flashlights bouncing off of the now menacing rock formations, we began searching for a way out. The route back didn’t match our memories of the route forward so we took turns scouting ahead until we stumbled upon some familiar looking features. The stick that looked like a snake, the arrow painted on the wall that clearly showed we had gone the wrong way (Oh, that’s what that arrow meant!) and finally the glimmer of sun dancing off water up ahead. Like a horse headed to the barn I picked up my feet and cantered to the light.
     After ten minutes of thanking a watchful God and enjoying the sun, we hiked up to the car and changed into dry clothes. Then we decided to walk over to where the river reappeared and exam the cave from that side.
     This entrance was a bit trickier. In our clean clothes and shoes we slid down a narrow crevice through wet orange clay to a small chamber. Intrigued by light dancing on the ceiling we discovered a large lake with an opening to the outside on the opposite shore. Then we turned around to go back the way we’d come, only again (can you spell I-D-I-O-T) we could not locate the correct path. There was no exit sign to guide us out and our flashlights were beginning to cast rather faint orange ovals on the pitted floor.
     I looked at Caroline and said, “If we don’t find our way out of here in ten minutes, I am swimming that (expletive deleted) lake and I will climb down a thirty foot drop if that’s what it takes to get out of here!” She told me to stay where I was and disappeared. I turned off my light to conserve my batteries. In a minute I heard her calling. She had found the way out.
     Now Mom, I know you are reading this and you are ready to pick up the phone and give me a call, but the reality of the situation is people knew where we were, and the cave is rated family friendly. The only real danger I was in was the danger of spraining my ankle as I galloped to the light. In fact, I would really like to go back and try to get all the way through sometime. Well, maybe not for a while.

     Light and dirt. Two of my favorite things. But, dirt without light doesn’t hold the same magic. I have read Tom Sawyer with my students too many times. I know Tom and Becky get out of the cave and he discovers treasure in the end. But, I’ve discovered I wouldn’t make a very good troglodyte. My treasure is the warm smile of the sun on my face and a garden full of green things that have captured the light and stored it so I can enjoy it later.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

At the Auction

     When the chores are done and the weather’s fine, then it’s time to go to the auction. Today, two friends and I spend the morning at an estate sale in West Virginia. Cars and trucks line the road for a half a mile in either direction, so we squeeze onto the grassy shoulder perilously close to a ditch. Caroline jumps out and directs my parking.
     Once the van is secure, we scuttle up the road, dodging oncoming cars and then climb the porch steps of the old farmhouse to register and get our numbers. I am number 206, which means there are 205 bargain hunters ahead of me. It might not be a good day for deals.
     The auctioneer starts with a hay wagon load of boxes. Each box has a variety of household treasures tucked inside its cardboard walls. Nut crackers, boxes of matches, Tupperware, ashtrays, tin boxes, pots with no lids and lids with no pots, paint by number pictures framed and ready to hang, beads, buttons, curtains, sheets, and dish towels. And hidden amidst all of these things might be a piece of depression glass, a tin toy, a rare book, a butter mold. The first hour at any auction is spent poring through the boxes to see what might be tucked under the junk. But, we are late. No time for that. We’ll just have to use our women’s intuition. We push our way through the crowd to plop in the grass on the hill.
     I’ve never been to an auction with this auctioneer so it takes me a while to catch on to his patter. Every auctioneer is different. Dressed in blue plaid and blue jeans, with a farm cap tilted back off his eyes, he leans on his cane and commences to tantalizing.
     “Heey! Lookee here. A genuine tin flower pot shaped like a bedpan. Isn’t that clever? Who’ll give me five dollars and where? How about four? You aren’t looking. You’ll never find a prettier potty. Start me off. I got a dollar, now two, now three. Anyone else? Are you all through and all done? Sold to number 135!
     The lady who buys it raises her card so he can get her number and then hurries forward to claim her prize. The first time I went to a country auction, I was afraid to wave to friends, scratch my nose or nod to acquaintances. I was uncertain about the bidding process and thought any stray movement on my part might be interpreted as a bid. I’ve since learned that sometimes you have to wave pretty hard to get the auctioneer’s attention, but then once you have it, just a slight wrinkle of your forehead is enough to send the bids up. It’s fun to look around and see if you can figure out who’s bidding against you.
     Sue and I jump right in. She buys some galvanized troughs for her lambs and a garden push plow. I buy a box of old pots for three dollars. There’s one white enamelware pot that I’m interested in for decorative purposes, but when I retrieve my pile I discover I’ve also gotten two beautiful enamel bowls, one blue and one sage green. Plus, a tin dishpan and various other pots with holes in them. There are tape labels on the sides proclaiming “All Big Boy,” and “small cherry.” These pots have been used as seedling starters, but now they will get a new life as dog bowls and decorations. Not bad for three dollars.
     A storm blows up and people scatter as the auctioneer and crew rush to pull blue tarps over dressers and sofas. I take a break and Caroline and I haul fifty pounds worth of goods to the van and then pull it closer. Lots of people have left in the deluge. We may get a bargain, yet. Sue stays behind and snags a box of toys and I offer to buy a cute little tin duck from her. We seal the deal and move on to the farm goods across the creek.
     Before I can cross the little bridge, I hear the auctioneer start the bidding on some chicken coops I spied earlier. I splash through the creek, soaking my pants , because these coops are one of the reasons I’m at the sale. I get there just in time to get a real deal on two coops. Sue offers to buy one off of me for a coffee table, but I tell her we’ll have to wait and see if Scott needs both of them. We consider buying some wooden barrels, but decide we can’t stuff them in the van. I offer to buy a chicken waterer from a lady who buys ten of them, and she takes me up on it. Then we make another trip to the van with our loot.
     It’s lunch time and Caroline springs for hot dogs and a slice of cake. Then we decide we’ve had enough and wedge ourselves into the van in between all our bargains. The van lumbers home and when I unpack it, I discover my chicken waterer won’t hold water. Oh well. Auctions are really about risks and treasures and catching up with old friends. It’s been a successful day.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

One Summer Day

I thought I would document one summer day and see what I did:

7:00 am--rise and shine—breakfast for Joe and Scott—creamed chipped beef on toast

8:00 am--clean up from breakfast gather things to work on finishing the mud room

8:30-9:00—Morning devotions

9:00-11:30--sand and finish all woodwork on mud room, finish moving furniture back on to it, sand and refinish five window sills in house

11:30 --go with Joe down to McDowell so he can drive the tractor and bailer up the road and I can drive the hay wagon. I hate driving wagons up the road. I’m always afraid the wagon will take out a mailbox, but I manage to make it the six miles with no incidents and even pull it through the gate without hanging up on a gate post. Scott flags us down. He’s lost hydraulic pressure on the disc mower so Joe pulls into the meadow and problem solves for him.

12:30--to the house for lunch. It’s just leftover hotdogs, beanie weenies and sliced apples with cold iced tea. It’s been hot and dry so we’re going through a lot of iced tea.

1:30 --Joe and Scott return to the hayfield. I finish bringing all of the furniture onto the mud porch and putting my tools and paint and rags and varnish away.

2:30—catch up on some writing assignments for the Recorder, then outside to water the back flower garden.

3:00—clean house—sweep and dust, wash some windows

4:00—drive back down to McDowell to meet Chance and talk about the CD he wants to record. Play and sing songs and choose four of the ten for him to use.

5:30—Justin comes home and heads to his garden, so I go out and help him weed for about 45 minutes.

6:15—back home. Go with Scott to chase cows out of the meadow. Then feed and water dogs and fill the trough with water for the sheep and horses.

7:00—start supper. Tonight we’re having cold sliced leftover chicken with Oriental cabbage salad, cubed cantaloupe and sliced tomatoes. Make another pitcher of iced tea with plenty of sugar for Scott.

8:00—Joe calls. He’s in McDowell filling the three hundred gallon water tank from the well on our other farm. He asks me to roll out hose up the hill so we can gravity feed it into our garden. He shows up at 8:30 just as I finish and we hook things up and make sure water is flowing all the way through the soaker hose.

9:00—sit down to eat supper out on the screen porch. It’s still 80 degrees, so we turn on the fan full blast.

9:30—clean kitchen and sit down to write this post. Whew! I’m tired

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Celebrating the Fourth

     On Saturday, in honor of our country’s Independence, Joe and I drove thirty five minutes to cheer on the marchers in our favorite parade. We were five minutes late and would have missed them completely if they hadn’t done a U-turn and retraced their route past the white-porches and general store of Blue Grass (formerly Crab Bottom), Virginia. It’s the same every year. Children on bicycles with red and blue streamers tangled in their spokes rush ahead of the red faced parents tugging their toddlers in red Radio Flyer wagons down the hill. They are followed by a phalanx of four-wheelers with flag waving teen-agers. They are in charge of the CD player for the line of cloggers tapping up the asphalt behind them. Next, a few civic minded citizens stroll past, decked out in crazy red, white and blue hats. Our local Maple queen and her court, in flip flops and halter tops, toss candy to the crowds lining the route as they stop to chat with friends. I score a Mary Jane, and three pieces of bubble gum. Finally, shirtless Stew, who sports a Mohawk and moccasins trots past on his noble black nag followed by cute little Carly on her Shetland Pony. It’s all over but the pooper scooping as the marchers disperse and line up for home-made ice-cream churned on the spot by the Friends of the Book Bank.
     Tonight, we continue our celebration with Doc who is on a brief leave from the Naval Academy. He has finished his plebe year and has come to visit Scott. They stay at the house long enough to share supper with us before packing up to spend the night up on the mountain. When they leave, Joe and I clear the table and then sit on the front porch under a star spangled sky and watch all the fireworks going off up and down our valley. Sue and Bobby, our neighbors across the street and over the hill, are really putting on a show and we watch their green and gold and red and silver chrysanthemums bloom against the black shoulders of Jack Mountain for at least 45 minutes. When the last explosion echoes off the hill behind us, Joe heads back inside but I hang out a bit longer to watch the earth-bound fireworks as fireflies rise up from the dark lawn. One last look at the night sky reveals Venus low on the horizon and tucked next to Regulus in the Sickle of Leo. I watch until she sinks from sight. A lone shooting star crosses right through the ladle of the Big Dipper and the sky show officially ends. It’s been a perfect celebration. Happy Fourth of July.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Gathering Up the Fragments

     We have a new barn out in our hayfield. It seems as if it grew up overnight with the hay. Joe has dreamed of building this particular barn for the last twenty years, but as ever, my Scotch-Irish husband waited until he had the financial means to do it before starting. But now, when I look out my window towards the north end of the field, there it is. We chose to build a red barn because, really, is there any other color suitable?
     When Glen Jr. had put the last nail in place, we drove out to inspect. There were piles of leftover tin and boards everywhere and like good country folk, we began to gather up the scraps and plan for their use. Although we made a pile for the dump, we also made piles for kindling, piles for patching and piles for doghouse building. Living as far as we do from a Home Depot or Lowes means we carefully consider what we throw away and what we save. Thank goodness we have outbuildings to keep our recycled treasures in. I’ve discovered that “if you build it, it will fill.” I’m sure that new barn will be full of things we can’t live without in a couple of years.
     I like to recycle the old pieces of metal that I find lying around by making them into wind-chimes and have even snipped some old tin roofing into stars for our Christmas tree. Used baler twine is good for emergency gate latches, staking tomatoes, and can even be woven into a sturdy fence patch. When Joe takes down a section of old woven wire fence, he rolls it up. Much of it is still serviceable for tomato cages. And if it’s too old for that then it can be mashed up and used for erosion control.
     Things don’t go to waste in the house, either. Ratty tee shirts are cut up for rags or torn into cotton strips for rugs. Mayonnaise jars, before the companies started using plastic, made great canning jars. Food scraps go to the chickens. Old cardboard boxes are torn into strips and saved for emergency kindling. Worn out socks become dusting mitts, and newspapers can be used as mulch in the garden.
     Joe’s mom, Geneva, was the master of repurposing. Growing up during the depression gave her a strong need to hold on to things in case they could be used for something else. The first day I opened her fridge a pile of butter wrappers fluttered to the floor. She was saving them to grease cookie pans. She also had a cookie tin full of buttons she’d cut off of old shirts and several attractive stools in her house she’d made from fruit juice cans and scraps of fabric. Windshield glass from broken down cars became colored mosaic candle holders and lamp shades. Joe never wore the legs out of a pair of jeans, because every time he tore a hole in them, she would cut up an old pair and make a sturdy patch. She also taught me how to turn shirt collars so the frayed edge was underneath.
     When Geneva was alive, I always knew that if I needed something, I could go prowl through one of the twelve rooms in her house and I would probably find exactly what I was looking for, or something that could be used in its place. Her most unusual repurpose was the time she cut up hundreds of bread bags into strips which she crocheted into pocket books and placemats.
     Many of our older neighbors also have the recycle, repurpose, reuse bug. Glen Jr. ( the same one who built the barn) went out last winter when there was twenty inches of snow on the ground and removed each of the huge icicles that hung from his eaves. He cut them into chunks, some as big as three loaves of bread, and carried them to his freezer where he stored them until we dug them out last week. We chipped them up, threw them in the churn with a bunch of salt and cranked out some truly old-fashioned home-made ice-cream. It could be my imagination, but I believe it tasted sweeter because it was made with the last icy breath of a really hard winter.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Communing with Cows

     I climbed the hill across from the house, yesterday and sat in the pasture with the cows. I didn’t plan on spending so much time with them. I started out with watercolors and sketch book in hand to do some studies of sheep and the view of my house from the hill. After climbing to the top, I sat on my little three legged stool and began to pencil in a small drawing of the view. That’s when the curious cows moved in.  I wasn’t aware of how close they were until one snorted.  When I looked back, ten cows, each the size of a small pickup truck, were lined up shoulder to shoulder glaring down their noses and chewing their cuds.
     They grunted softly, snorted loudly and their rumens rumbled constantly. One calf, who probably weighed about 500 pounds, kept sidling closer and closer. Finally he worked up the courage to rub his shiny wet nose across my shoulder. Then he began licking my arm. Imagine the roughness of a cat’s tongue multiplied by ten. The grown-up cows watched him with interest and finally decided I might be a friendly beast. They moved in and soon I was surrounded by an imposing row of cows looking down at me through incredibly long eye-lashes.
    As we sat there, one species pondering the other, the cows stepped closer until the circle of curious bovines was only an arms-length away. I was afraid to breathe. Even the smallest shifting of my weight from one side of the stool to the other made them jump, and I didn’t want ten tons of cows to spook and stampede me.
     I was surprised when a flock of cowbirds circled and landed beside us. One or two of the small birds hopped up through the grass, dodging massive legs and hooves, until they were right at my feet. They tilted their heads like they were listening and then began pecking at something hidden the grass. I wondered about the symbiotic relationship between birds and cows. The birds hopped without care around and between the mass of shifting, shuffling beef, but when I moved, the birds startled and took flight.
     After a day full of noisy students and clanging bells, the gentle cropping and burping of cows was like a lullaby. The sun was low enough in the sky to outline the cows in gold light and I was content in the shadow of their ruminations. Finally, I had to scratch my nose. When I lifted my hand the cows bolted and the birds fluttered to another part of the field. I folded up my stool and walked down the hill. It was way past time to start supper. The cows followed me to the gate and then as I clanged it shut, turned and threaded their way up the narrow valley back to the high meadow. But, the little calf who had tasted my sweat, paused for a moment to stare at me. Then with a flick of his ear, he ran to catch up with his mama. I wonder what stories he told her under the stars.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Critter List

Critter List

Today, just for fun, I kept a list of all the critters I saw as I went about my daily business. Here it is
1. Golden Eagle riding a thermal
2. Bald Eagle soaring along the river
3. Geese honking their way north in a perfect V formation
4. Goldfinch perched in a peach tree
5. Bluebird catching a bug in mid-air
6. Robin pulling a worm out of my lawn
7. Brown Thrush skirting the wooded edge of the driveway
8. Black Bear and three cubs crossing the road
9. Whitetail deer and fawn in meadow
10. Chipmunk scurrying across the driveway
11. Frog (didn’t see him, but heard him)
12. dead groundhog in road
13. dead raccoon in road
14. Vultures eating dead groundhog and dead raccoon in the road
15. Sheep and lambs lounging in the shade
16. Cows and calves licking up salt
17. Chickens scratching in the dirt
18. Dogs hanging out in their houses
19. Cats napping on the porch
20. Horses grazing in the front lot
21. Earthworm curled under a rock
22. Cricket hopping across shed floor
23. Yellow Snail climbing a grass stalk
24. Slug eating holes in my Hostas
25. Crows congregating in the woods
26. Redtail Hawk being chased by crows
27. Red Fox being chased by crows
28. Honeybee sipping clover
29. Fly annoying me
30. Gnat annoying me
31. Deer Fly annoying me
32. Newt hiding under a log
33. Crayfish scuttling backwards in a riffle
34. Minnows swimming forwards in a riffle
35. Water Strider swimming on top of a riffle
36. Bats looping and curling after bugs
37. Swallows dipping and soaring after bugs
38. Squirrel scolding me from tree
39. Dragonfly hovering over rushes in marsh
40. Fireflies twinkling in the pasture and woods
41. Bobwhite (didn’t see him, but heard him)
42. Grouse crossing road
43. Butterfly sipping water from a fresh cow pie
44. Little spider making a sheet web
45. Moles (well, not the moles, but evidence of their tunneling)
46. Redwing Blackbirds singing from tall grasses in marsh

Friday, May 28, 2010


     When I walk down to the barn, the air is filled with the plaintive bleating of ewes who are penned in the barn. It’s been raining every evening and they need to be dry for their shearing. Justin oils up his clippers. He is standing on a six by six foot piece of indoor outdoor carpeting that is stained with lanolin and sheep manure from years of use.
     He and his brother Scott have been helping shear sheep on the family farm since they were eight years old. Like all farm kids, they started in the wool bag which hangs from a seven foot high frame. This splintery structure holds the wool sack vertical so the fleeces can be dropped in. When the wool froths out of the top, someone must climb up and drop down into the bag to tromp on the fleeces until they fill every corner of the bag and make a tight tube. When we were first married, that was my job. It’s stinky and hot, so when the boys were old enough I gladly turned it over to them. A well packed bag will hold around twenty fleeces and weigh around one hundred thirty pounds. After wool packing, the boys graduated to fleece gathering and then to sheep catching. Justin sheared his first sheep when he was twelve years old. 
     Everything is ready, so Scott jumps in the stall and catches the first ewe by her head. A drench gun attached to a plastic bladder bag hangs from a rusty nail on the barn wall, and he slips the metal tip of it into her mouth. She pulls back, but he holds on until the two-pump dose of wormer has been delivered. Then Scott wrestles the ewe out the door to his brother. Justin twists the ewe until she is propped up on her rump. He makes his first pass with the clippers across her belly. They chatter and click as Justin pulls the ewe back into his thighs. He shears her left hip and then steps between her back legs with his right foot. The wool falls away from the ewe like a fluffy blanket as he glides the clippers up her neck to her head. She kicks and struggles, so Justin shifts his hold and admonishes her, “You aren’t accomplishing nothing. You’re just gonna get yourself in trouble.”
     The clippers buzz as Justin swivels them around to her left shoulder, and Scott darts forward with an oil can. He drips a fine stream across the comb and cutters until they are singing their chicka-chacka song again. Then with a deft twist Justin lays the languid ewe on her right side. She seems to be enjoying the tickle of the buzzing clippers. He pins her to the ground with a knee and makes several more passes with the comb until her left side is clean. The curved teeth leave raised stripes in the wooly stubble across her ribs. Then Justin steps across her body with his right foot. He grabs her ear and pulls the ewe’s head up, shearing around her right side as he rolls her into a sitting position. A few more passes and the ewe is released. She jumps to her feet, ears flapping and trots off leaving her wool behind on the mat. The whole operation has taken less than three minutes.
     A good shearer makes the job look easy. I tried it once. I lost my ewe three times and each time Joe had to chase her down, drag her back, and set her up in the correct position. He was exhausted by the time I made the last pass across the ewe’s hip. It took me thirty minutes and the poor sheep had random tags of wool hanging everywhere. She looked like she had been sheared in a blender.
     Twenty six years ago, wool sold for around eighty cents a pound. So, the average ewe yielded $4.80 worth of wool. Shearers got two dollars a head to shear, and selling wool was a profitable venture. Now, wool is bringing around fifty cents a pound and the cost of shearing has risen to three dollars an animal. A farmer is lucky to break even. But, the sheep must be sheared. Justin told me he hates shearing. It’s back breaking work, but when I asked him why he did it, he said, “How’d you like to have to wear a wool coat all summer long?” I hope the sheep appreciate their shepherd’s loving care

Monday, May 24, 2010

No Place Like Home

After spending three days in Atlanta, I am glad to return to my serene mountain home. Atlanta is beautiful in the spring, but it is a pampered, manicured, cultured beauty and my tastes, after living in the mountains for more than twenty-five years, run more towards the wild, sprawling, untamed kind. The neighborhood streets where my sister lives are tree and flower lined and I admire the majestic oaks that guard the sidewalks and doorways. Unlike the crowds of trees that march up and down my hills, these don’t have to compete for space, so their crowns are huge clouds of leaves and limbs, like the hoopskirts of a southern belle. I wanted to hug one of the largest trees on my sister’s block but it was in a stranger’s front yard, so I refrained. Yes, Atlanta’s trees are definitely one of her treasures.

But, I missed the gentle swells of my mountains. I missed long grass bowing before a spring blow. I missed daisies that sparkle beside the narrow roads and long views of nothing but cows, mountains, trees and grass. I missed beauty that is not dependent on man’s hand. And I also missed the beauty of the gentle decay of barns and sheds as they sag to the ground from the weight of all those years of work. Most of all I missed the music. Atlanta is all bass drums and trumpets while my mountains are flutes and woodwinds. Bird songs, wind songs, river songs, rain songs, leaf songs, frog songs, bee songs, barnyard songs. All of the smaller sounds survive here.

In Atlanta, I also realized that I am a small pond kind of girl. As talk swirled of vacations taken, days at the pool, accomplishments and awards, I had nothing to add to the conversation. My world is narrower and defined by the edges of the mountains around me. So was my children’s. They participated in sports and activities, but the distances meant there were limits to what they could choose. I came home feeling a little melancholy about all the missed opportunities, but as my home-from-college son and I drove the hour it takes to get to the dentist, he put it all in perspective for me. We were talking about his cousin’s upcoming scuba trip when he looked at me and said. “It sounds like a lot of work for some fun. I would much rather grab my gun and walk out into the field for an hour or two of groundhog hunting, or grab a pole and go trout fishing, or camp on our river.” Then he paused for a moment before continuing. “You know mom, all my friends from college were talking about what they were going to do or where they were going for the summer, but all I wanted to do was come home.” I guess Dorothy had it right. After the excitement of Oz, there really is “no place like home.”

Monday, May 3, 2010

Working Cows

This weekend was sunny, and warm:  perfect cattle working weather. So, after closing up their small engine repair shop for the afternoon, Justin and Joe hopped on their four wheelers and zoomed out into the long pasture next to our farm. The cows were scattered over several fields so the guys wove back and forth on their ATV’s moving mamas and babies into small groups which eventually merged into one large herd. It looked like a twenty acre square dance. Finally the cows and calves were all gathered at the gate.
     I was drying dishes when I looked out the window and saw the first of the 25 cows and calves funneling through. I threw down my towel, pulled on an old pair of boots and ran outside, grabbing a big stick on my way to the cattle pen. Our set-up requires the cows to cross a small creek and then follow a fence to the end of the pen where they turn and enter. Saturday was like every other round up. Most of the cows trekked obediently to the opening, but there was one rogue cow (I won’t tell you what Joe called her) who refused to go along with the crowd. Every time we had most of the cows turned into the pen, she threw up her head, whirled around and charged past one of us (usually me) back out to the open field. Every time, Justin hopped on his four wheeler and gunned it, racing to get in front of her. Joe attempted to hold the other cows in place while I ran huffing and puffing to take up a strategic cow-turning position. Every time the cow galloped towards me, I waved my big stick and hollered hoping to turn her. But, the old cow figured out pretty quickly that I belonged in the hen house behind me with the other big chickens so she just slobbered derisively on me as she cantered past.
     Finally, she got tired of running circles and joined her bovine friends. Joe swung the gate shut and then the sort out began. He stepped into the pen with the crowded, restless herd. They signified their displeasure by stomping and bawling and kicking at him. Joe waded around in the black gumbo of feces and urine, ignoring their distress and gently sent them two or three at a time into a smaller pen. From there he moved them into a long, narrow passageway with a head chute at the end. It’s designed to fool the cows into thinking they’ve found an escape route. Each time a cow stretched her head through the narrow opening, Justin pulled a lever, pinching the gate shut around her neck. While she kicked and struggled, he climbed the fence, leaned above the 1250 pound animal, jabbed a needle into her neck and pulled it back out before she could trap his hand against the side of the pen. I was, as always, amazed at how quickly and calmly my son worked. Once the vaccine was administered, Justin poured on some wormer and then released the cow back out into the pasture where she circled around bawling until she located her calf.
     Of course I had the most important job of all. Early in the afternoon, one of the cows kicked a hole through a board in the pen. Whenever a cow sees a hole, she forces her head through it and then bulldozes her way to freedom. My job was to intimidate the cows and keep them from escaping. I am much braver when I have a fence to hide behind. The only hazard I faced was streams of liquid green poop that squirted out of the cows as they moved away. In spite of their size and stink, the cows were interesting to watch. They love their babies and a lot of their movement in the pen was directed at keeping them in sight. They were also very curious about me, sometimes smelling my scary stick and then licking their noses. A cow is not afraid to stick her tongue all the way into her nostrils.
     We finished up in about an hour and a half. Several cows were loaded into a trailer to be moved. Then, the rest were released to mosey back to the pasture, while we moseyed back to the house. As the sun sank behind the mountains, we sank into our porch chairs and listened as the last of the mamas and babies mooed their way home.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Sometimes pictures can speak louder than words.  After work, I drove 35 miles to the grocery store which is across the state line from my house.  That might seem a burdensome drive after a 9 hour workday, but the road was mostly unlined, narrow, barely two-lane and decorated with living breathing juvenile bald eagles, a groundhog, a rabbit, red-wing blackbirds, bluejays, a meadowlark, and whitetail deer.  In addition to the wildlife, spring is decked out in frilly pink redbuds.  Vacation is a state of mind.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


     Two weeks ago, the chiller in my trout tank died. My baby trout, better known as fingerlings at this stage, can’t live unless the water temperature is between 50 and 55 degrees, so the death of the chiller created a crisis. Within an hour the water temperature had risen to 57 degrees. We started an ice brigade, but the ice, sealed in Ziploc bags was melting almost as fast as we could get it into the tank. The temperature dropped a degree, but then rose again. Next, the cafeteria donated frozen two liter bottles of water which they use to keep coolers, well……cool. The frozen bottles helped and the temperature dropped to 55 again. Panicky calls to my Trout in the Classroom coordinators did not yield a replacement chiller, so I ordered a new one from California . Then I started trying to figure out how I was going to keep my fishy babies alive until the new cooling unit arrived. Plans that ranged from taking the trout home in a small bucket and icing them every four hours to bringing in a drink cooler and rigging some hosing to run through it were discussed and abandoned. Finally it occurred to me that we had a bona-fide trout hatchery right in town. DUH! I called them and they were quick to agree to fish-sit for us until the classroom tank was cold again.
     The babies, whose tank temperature was now perilously past their survival temperature, were gently spooned into a cooler with some ice bags and then loaded into the van for a sloshy ride to the hatchery. As I backed in to the basement door, I was met by Junior who was ready to perform trout CPR if necessary. Thirty three fingerlings found a pristine temporary home in the cool waters that rush through the basement of the hatchery. I could tell this was a far better thing that had happened to them than had ever happened before. A week later, the new chiller arrived and the trout, who were much fatter and happier than when I left them, came home. The students were overjoyed, the teacher was overjoyed and the fish were disappointed to be back in a smaller, glass walled home. They had forgotten what it felt like to have children staring at them. No longer our friendly swim-to-the-top-of-the-tank-to-say-hello-fish, they spent most of their first day hiding in the rocks. Finally, we tempted them back out with food, but they are warier than they were. Which, if you think about it, is probably a good thing considering they will be in danger of becoming lunch for a larger predator when we release them. So we’ll call this one a happy ending.
     Second homecoming. Tip the Cat had become too romantically inclined. He was travelling out to the main road in search of a furry girl friend. The last time I caught him prancing back up the driveway, I knew his time of manhood and dangerous assignations needed to end. I scheduled an appointment with my vet friend who teaches at a community college. Tip would get his little operation for free, but it involved a lengthy stay. I made Joe take him so my darling boy wouldn’t associate me with his lengthy abandonment. There would be no one to rub his head and I was sure he would forget how much he loved it (and me.) Three days later, Tip was home, seated on my lap begging for a head rub. Happy ending number two. (Tip might feel a little differently)
     Third homecoming. Scott was home for the prom. We didn’t see him much because it was a quick trip, and now that he’s back at Tech, the ghost of his happy soul is rattling around the house. It always feels that way when he leaves to go back to school, but in less than four weeks, he’ll be home for the summer. Then we’ll have happy ending number three.
     Homecomings are better than sunny days!