Saturday, November 9, 2019

A Perfect Afternoon

     The weather today was just right for burning the last of the garden debris. Temperature in the upper thirties with a light wind blowing south so the smoke and sparks would flow out over the garden and not toward the house.
     After I raked the dry zinnia stalks into a pile and then pulled up the soggy cardboard mulch, I twisted a piece of newspaper and shoved it in the driest part. One match later, smoke curled up from the edges of the haphazard pile and then twisted as the wind picked up. That wind was important for getting the wet cardboard to burn, and soon I had a roaring fire.
     I could see vehicles pausing as they raced down the road a quarter mile across the field in front of my house. Wet debris burns with a great deal of smoke, and I'm sure the drivers were wondering what was on fire. I considered trying to send some smoke signals to let them know everything was under control, but had to be content with the fact that I was wearing a blaze orange hoodie, and they could probably see me moving around from the road.
     In an hour, the pile was reduced to fine ash, a perfect supplement for spreading out on the garden to add minerals to the soil.

As I sat there, with the last of the heat warming my face, I heard a small whistle and then a fluttery beating of wings. A gray-backed, butternut-chested, tufted titmouse landed on one of the sunflower plants drooping on the edge of the garden and studied me. I think he was hoping I'd leave. My bright orange coat must have puzzled him.

     I did leave, but returned a minute later with camera in hand. It took the curious little bird and his twitter-pated cousins about fifteen minutes to decide that the big orange blob sitting under the stalks was harmless.
      Soon, the air was full of fluttering and singing as the little birds gathered enough courage to land on the burgeoning heads and dig for seeds.
     I think that there can't be anything more perfect than sitting in the golden light of a fading fall afternoon and watching nuthatches dig into sunflower heads, tossing debris left and right as they pry out their supper.  As soon as a seed was firmly pinched between upper and lower bill, the little birds leaped into the air and in their peculiar up-down, up-down manner of flight made their way to the wooden slats of the grape vine where they, tap, tap, tapped until they broke open their particular seed.

As more birds discovered the bounty, some jostling and flapping helped establish the pecking order.

I watched the show for as long as my rear end could handle the cold ground. Before leaving, I took a look at the bird's handiwork. There were still enough seeds left for another day or two of fun.

I gathered a few for myself and then slipped inside to warm up by the woodstove. Even five hours later, my shirt still carries the sweet scent of smoke. Today, I stored up a treasure of memories against the day in the future when I can no longer sit on cold ground and watch earnest little birds making a living in the remnants of my summer garden.

Monday, September 16, 2019

When Out on the Hills There Arose Such a Clatter

     At four o'clock in the morning, Joe and I both sat bolt upright in our bed. He scrambled for slippers, taking time to also pull on pants and a shirt, while I, in only my flimsy nightgown, bounded down the steps, stepped into my boots and ran outside.
     When I stepped out with my oversize flashlight, the cacophony of snarling and howling stopped. Coyotes.
     This is the second time in two weeks we've been awakened this way, but this time was worse. We had heard both of our dogs hunting rabbits near the house when we first jumped up. Now, there was nothing but silence.
    Just last week, our neighbor, Mike, lost a beloved old dog to a pack of coyotes. He told me that he, too, awakened to clamor and went outside. Unlike us, he spotted the three coyotes circling one of his dogs. Mike called the dog to the house and then went inside for a gun. When he returned, the coyotes had vanished. The next morning he found his beloved older dog dead right where the coyotes had been. He'd forgotten she was outside.
     The eerie silence following such intense pack-noise put my hackles up as I thought about Mike's dog. Luke, one of my beagles, came running, but the other was absent and silent. We searched for forty-five minutes, our flashlights stabbing deep into the shadowed woods but no dog answered our call.
     The story has a happy ending. Rex, the other dog, was curled up in the flowerbed next to the house when we returned.
     But, three nights ago, a lamb didn't have such a happy ending. When I hear eagles crying and see vultures circle, it usually means that there's been an animal death somewhere on the farm, so when we heard eagles that afternoon, we jumped in the truck and went for a look-see.
     There were four or five vultures riding the currents above the hill across the road and when we crested it and then pulled partially down the other side, the whoosh and flap of eagles rising up through the trees drew us to the site.
    One of our lambs lay, ribs exposed, in a ditch next to a culvert. The flies were making a meal, but I have a fairly good tolerance for stink, so I walked over and prodded the carcass with a stick. When the lambs eyeless head rolled back, I spotted the tell-tale toothmarks. She'd been bitten and strangled by a coyote.
     This is not the first time I've written about coyotes.( The Coyote Tree) While I am such a big fan of nature and all things outside, coyotes are not on my favorites list.  I've told this story in graphic detail because that's the way it happened and it explains why I'm frustrated by those who have lobbied to no longer allow us to set poisonous traps for the coyotes because someone's dog found one and died when he bit into it.
     We lose an average of 15 to 25 lambs a year to coyotes and as I said in my previous post, the lambs are not eaten, just slaughtered and nibbled on. Senseless waste.
     We've noticed that the coyotes around here are getting bolder. Neighbor Dennis shot at some in his front yard the other night. He thought maybe they had come looking for his cats. I told my husband that when I moved to the mountains I never envisioned the bear and coyotes being such cozy neighbors. I am frightened to go out at night without a dog and a flashlight.
     It seems to me that more and more people have become "Bambi-ized." All furry critters are cute and the humans trying to make a living in spite of them are the enemy. Tell that to my farmer friends who've lost acres of corn to raccoons and bears that they can't get permits to shoot. 
     When a predator, in the wild kills another animal, it's considered an act of nature. When a human kills an animal it's considered a crime. My daughter-in-law has a student who is serving jail time for killing a dog he knows was killing his sheep. After asking neighbors to please keep the dog away, the student took matters into his own hands the next time he saw the dog on his property. Now, he's in jail for a considerable amount of time.
     A child's life was worth less than the dog's.
     You, who've read other essays on my blog, know that I walk a line between absolute adoration of all things wild and a growing awareness that the world is not as pretty as I thought it was when my closest neighbors were all human.
     Right or wrong, I've changed. Last night proved it to me, again.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Hanging On by a Thread

     Although I'm not always happy to see a spider, especially if I find her wandering around the kitchen, I am enraptured by the magic silk thread they spin.  Last spring, as I was perched on the hill above my house, I noticed glints and glimmers of light floating through the gold haze that signals afternoon is drawing to an end.
     I watched intently as more and more of these shimmers wafted across the field in front of me. They were the tiny silk parachutes of spiderlings, who drifted, legs outstretched, dangling and swinging in the softest breeze. If you have read Charlotte's Web then you know that each baby spider journeys away from home on the slenderest balloon the air can move.
     There were hundreds of them floating and landing, and two or three even ended up dangling from my hat brim before scurrying up and re-launching themselves. Now, if you hate spiders, you need to know that these creatures were no bigger than the head of a pin. Not very threatening at all.
     Spider webs are the most amazing material. My research revealed that they are built from sequences of proteins, are stored as a liquid concentrate in the spider's abdomen, are stronger, when compared by weight, than Kevlar, and the common garden spider can produce up to seven different kinds. Silk that is resistant to bacteria, silk that is sticky, silk that is smooth, silk that is less brittle and so on.
     But, it's the beauty of webs that captures my heart. I'll never forget the morning, twenty years ago, that I was walking up the side of a mountain. The fog hadn't burned off, and the sun was just brightening the world: a luminescence that briefly lit hundreds of spiral cobwebs spun in an old snag silhouetted against the lemon yellow fog. The webs, spangled with dew, looked like silver beaded necklaces and ornaments strung from twig to twig. I didn't have my camera, but I've spent the last twenty years prowling about with my camera on foggy mornings trying to find and capture that picture.
     The following series of pictures were caught on just such a morning. The fog didn't hang around, but the webs did, and until the sun peeked over the rim of the hill, they sparkled with droplets captured from the mist. I didn't find that elusive shot of a silk decorated snag, but the webs are still much to marvel at and remind me of the exquisite care God took as he created this world.


For the next picture, I waded through a field of tall grass to be positioned correctly for the rising sun.

I couldn't see them until I stood still, but when I did, I counted 15 within arm's reach.

The architects of my favorite spiral webs, hard at work repairing damage done through the night of trapping and eating their supper.

     Intent on being in position to photograph this web just as it was lit by the sun, I had missed seeing what I was wading through. A little disconcerted, I was wearing shorts after all, I picked my way carefully back through the grass and managed not to disturb any webs or pick up any eight-legged hitchikers. The spiders were probably more relieved than I was when I made it back un-silked and un-spidered.
     Although I didn't ultimately find the snaggy, silky picture I still dream about, I re-kindled my appreciation for how much of the world we don't see until we take time to stand still and notice. 



Sunday, July 21, 2019

Generally Important

This is a repost of something I wrote two years ago. It's still true and we've lost two more stores since I wrote it.

     In a place where not one box store exists and no grocery stores offer food or cleaning products, I am grateful for the small general stores that still dot the landscape.  Each valley sports at least one and locals know that there is more to them than meets the eye.
     My first introduction to the friendly service offered by our general stores came shortly after moving to Highland from the city.  I was accustomed to banks that had drive-through windows and late hours but our little bank hadn't acquired such a window. I discovered that it didn't matter when I began shopping at the H and H Cash Store, which was just a short walk from where I lived.  The owner offered credit.  I could walk in, pick up a few things I needed, and then ask Gaye or one of her sons to "just put it on the list."  At the end of the month or whenever I felt like it, I paid off my bill and they scratched my name out of the little notebook that they kept.
     Then one weekend, a friend asked me to travel over the mountains with her.  I didn't have a dime in my pockets and the banks were closed.  After pondering my dilemma for a few moments, I walked up the street to the H and H Cash.  "Gaye, have you ever considered letting someone have a little money on credit?"  I asked.
     She looked up from the sweatshirt she was stitching designs into (you could buy one of her handmade designs for just $8.00) and peered at me over her glasses.  Her blue eyes twinkled.  "How much do you need?" she asked.
     "Oh, I think ten dollars would do," I replied.
      Without another word, she opened the cash drawer, drew out a ten and handed it over.  Then she wrote my name in her little book.  "I know you're good for it," she said.
     That was my first introduction to the hidden charms of general stores.  I later discovered that H and H was also the place to drop off your dry cleaning, which would be picked up by a truck from over the mountains and returned clean and crisp a week later.  H and H Cash was a treasure cave of supplies.  The interior smelled of apples, onions and shoe leather.   If they didn't have what you needed hidden somewhere in one of the dark corners, then they would order it for you. They even carried topographic maps of the area.
      When I married My Farmer, I moved one valley east and discovered Ralston's Grocery.  Anna Lou also allowed credit and as an added bonus, the post office was located behind the south wall.  There was a little window with bars and lots of cute metal mail boxes.  Ralston's was the center of the Highland News Network.  I used to jokingly tell people that I first discovered I was pregnant when I heard it being discussed while picking up my mail.
     The store changed hands, becoming Stonewall Grocery, and the post office was forced by the government to move to new digs dedicated solely to sorting and stuffing.  But, Patsy and Linda, recognizing that there was still an unmet need began allowing people to leave messages for each other on their back counter. Not too long ago, a fellow offered a telescope for sale on Facebook.  I offered to buy it and he left it at Stonewall Grocery for me to pick up.  When he dropped it off, he exchanged it for an envelope I'd left for him with payment. You can't do that at the local Walmart.
    Stonewall Grocery is also a great place to pick up supper.  They offer Wonder Roast chickens for overworked housewives and they are so popular that you have to call ahead in the morning and reserve one for supper that night.  I have friends two valleys over, who will make a special trip just so they can enjoy the juicy goodness of a Wonder Roast.  Stonewall also has a deli and makes sandwiches, homemade brownies and fresh baked banana bread.  They even give up precious shelf space for a satellite of our local library so you can check out a book to read while you eat.
     Other general stores in the area meet different needs.  There are pizzas at one, chicken tenders at another and taco salads at a third.  If I want oysters for Christmas, I can order them from the Country Convenience in Blue Grass.  If I'm craving homemade bread, cookies or pies, Mountain Oasis bakes on Tuesdays and Fridays.They also sell outdoor wood furnaces and guns. If I want some of the best sharp cheddar cheese on the East Coast, then a stop at the little store in Headwaters is necessary.  Headwaters also offers really inexpensive bottles of water.  I asked about this and the owner said, "Well, people come here and they are thirsty.  There's no where else to get water, so it's a service I offer."  None of this is advertised.  Small businesses have a tiny profit margin and can't afford it.  But, word of mouth is enough.  You just have to live here long enough to find it all.
     Now some of the little stores are closing.  Our population is shrinking and there aren't enough people to spread the money around, although our swelling summer population helps.  The general store in Mill Gap will soon lock its doors.  They were the last outpost for a cold coke if you were travelling west over the mountains. Hightown lost its general store when the owner, Jacob Hevener, got too old to work there.  They used to offer Woolrich clothes and Red Wing shoes.  H and H Cash closed its doors three years ago.  I guess I won't be getting money on credit anymore.
     I recently discovered that every time I use a credit card, it costs the store where I use it two to three percent of the sale.  In addition, if my card awards points, the store pays for that, too.  Doesn't seem like much unless your bottom line is tiny anyway.  So, I have made it my mission to shop locally for everything I can buy and to pay cash for all of it.  One day when small stores have been forced out of business, we will miss them.  Not just for their convenience, but for the rich life they brought to our mountains and valleys.  For the friendly greetings, the community support and the ways they made our lives a little easier.  I hope that day never comes.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Antagonizing the Farm

Last weekend, My Own Farmer and I decided to take a short trip to the eastern side of the state to visit my sister, my brother and my dad for Father's Day. We slept in, since it felt like a holiday, and as I packed our small suitcase at eight o'clock that morning,  I thought that  we would have an hour for a leisurely breakfast and maybe we could even sit out on the porch and enjoy a slow cup of coffee before we left.

The thing is: a farm is a jealous mistress. She laughs at you when you start to plan. Then she throws obstacles in your way. As I folded the last pair of jeans, I heard cars honking out on the road in front of our house. A glance out the window confirmed my suspicions. The sheep we had herded back under the fence last night, were once again free-ranging the roadside. We had made repairs, but sheep are pretty good at finding a new hole.

There's no way we could leave town with our frisky flock foraging at will, so I hollered for My Own Farmer and we drove the half mile out, shooed the sheep back under the fence and did another quick  repair, crossing our fingers that it would hold until we returned.

We drove back to the house and I slipped out to check on the chickens and make sure they had enough food and water to last until we returned. All the chickens ran up when I called except one. She'd looked kind of poorly for a few days, but this morning the issue was obvious. Her crop was distended like a balloon and a quick check on the internet made it pretty clear that my only choice was to operate.

My Own Farmer and I gathered what we'd need. Sterilized surgical scissors, a syringe, warm water, needle, thread and a surgical clamp. He held her while I cut into the crop, used the clamp to pull a softball size mass of compacted grass out, squirted the opening clean with warm water and then stitched her back up.

We still had thirty minutes before we were slated to leave, but as I was pulling out some eggs for a quick fry, I heard a commotion out behind the house. The cows had knocked the chicken gate open and then bumped it shut, penning themselves in the chicken lot.

I headed out and after ten minutes of red-faced running, I pushed the cows back out the gate and shut it so they couldn't get back in. Back to the house, but no more time for breakfast or that leisurely cup of coffee. I made a quick clothing change and we were in the car only ten minutes later than we had planned. We picked up two sausage biscuits at the local mom and pop on the way out and enjoyed our leisurely cup of coffee on the road.

Sometimes my family wonders why I don't plan for vacations and visits months ahead of time. I know better than to antagonize the farm with foolish plans. It's always better to surprise her. Our chances of actually leaving are better that way.

Monday, April 22, 2019

My Favorite Color of Year

When I taught English, I had my students memorize poetry and one of their favorites was a Robert Frost poem, "Nothing Gold Can Stay."
 In listening to students recite this year after year, I learned it by heart as well and find myself, every spring, whispering it under my breath as I watch the rising green.

Nature's first green is gold.

Her hardest hue to hold.

Her early leaf's a flower;

But only so an hour.

Then leaf subsides to leaf,

So Eden sank to grief,

So dawn goes down to day.

Nothing gold can stay.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Re-post of April 2012 because the more things change, the more they stay the same.....

Seven years ago, this was my post for today. Some things never change. The grass is greening and the animals are always. And we are chasing always. 

This time of year brings out the worst in the cows and lambs.  They won’t stay where they belong.  I knew today was going to be an escapish kind of day when we went out at six thirty this morning to bring in the steers and heifers that were going to market.  Of course, they all romped into the pen for food, but they would not and could not seem to romp into the smaller pen where we were trying to corral them.  They whirled and kicked and bawled and ran past our outstretched arms.  Finally we had all of them in the sorting pen and Joe commenced to tapping rumps and sending various bovines in various directions.  He told me to stand in the gap and swing one way for all the animals except number 35.  She was to be sent into the smallest pen of all.  Well, I penned her and then when I turned to shoo away some other heifers she unpenned herself.  It went like that all morning.  Finally, we gave up, loaded up anything we could find and decided to sort things out at the Ag Center where the heifers were being sold and the pens are more suited for sorting.

On my way home from the sorting sortie, I saw one of our lambs in the road.  He was not too distressed about things until I drove up on him to try and gently persuade him to turn back toward the hole under the fence from whence he had crept.  As soon as I left my vehicle, the lost lamb ran as fast as he could north up the road.  The hole was south.  I jumped back in my vehicle, raced ahead of him, skidded into a neighbor’s driveway, jumped out and began to chase him back south.  When some kind friends drove by and saw my middle aged sweating self waving my arms and running pell mell up the road, they stopped to help.  The lamb dodged them and fled south past the hole, so they jumped in their truck and raced to get ahead of him, while I huffed and puffed back to my car and spun out of the driveway to keep him from turning north again.  It took all three of us to convince that little lamb to make the turn into the gate, but he is safe with the flock for now.  Until he decides to escape again.

Then, when I got home from the chase, I discovered a message on my answering machine.  One of our cows was roaming town browsing on the flowers in our neighbors’ yards.  

Justin agreed to go after her.  I think I’ll go up to my studio where there is no phone and no view of the road.    

Monday, February 25, 2019


     We knew it was coming. The weather stations gave plenty of warning. This was not our first experience with deep, sighing, thunderous winds, so I finished cooking our nighttime meal early-- leaving it in the oven to stay warm, filled every container in the house including the bathtub with water, and then put some ice in a cooler.
     I was outside feeding my chickens when I heard a crack then watched a tree spin, twist and hit the ground. The power went out an hour later. There were no warning blinks, just lights on one minute. Out the next. You forget how noisy your house is until it’s not anymore. The refrigerator stopped humming, the fan that moves air into our living room was quiet. The television silenced.
     The worst power outage we’ve ever been through happened during the first time we ever heard the word “derecho”. We were powerless for three days and the National Guard set up a post in our county for water and a hot meal.
     It was summer so we ate canned food from the cellar that we heated on our grill, played board games by candlelight, dipped drinking and flushing water from our spring, and showered in cold river water silvering up through a hose attached to a gas-powered pump. That was probably my favorite part of the three-day outage…standing naked in the sunshine, spraying my husband with cold water, and dancing around screaming and laughing as we hosed off. The rumble of generators blanketed the county.
     This power outage was shorter and quieter. I had planned to celebrate my oldest son’s birthday, so a peanut butter pie waited in the fridge along with a bowl of coleslaw. Meanwhile, the ribs I had started earlier were done. Joe and I jumped in the truck and visited both boys and their wives to tell them the party was still on.
     It was a magical night. Candles flickered on every surface and I draped cabinets with my battery-powered Christmas lights. The flames, dancing in the window of my woodstove, gave a flickery glow to the dining room.
     As the last paper plate was dropped in the stove, and left-overs wrapped in foil, I reflected on the gift of the wind. The Danes have a word for what I felt around my table. It means a special sort of cozy brought about by low lights, family and good food. The wind gave us the low lights and the rest of the joy came in the door with my children.
     Whenever the power goes out, at first there’s a sense of panic. But at our house it’s usually followed by a sense of grace. Electricity separates us, sending humans into separate spaces to stare at flickering screens. When the electricity is out, there’s nothing left for us to do but enjoy each other. The grace of our family’s love shines in the darkness, outlined by candles and laughter. Perhaps it’s time to think about the lesson of the wind and put a little more hygge in our busy lives.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Possum Come A Knockin' At the Door

*disclaimer--no possums were hurt in the making of this post...

It's been happening more and more frequently this winter. Furry critters are hanging out with my hens.

The first visitor was a baby skunk sniffing around under the nest boxes. I didn't notice him (her?) until I had filled the waterer and feeders. When I turned to gather the eggs, we were both surprised. The puzzled skunk watched me back out slowly. The next morning, it was gone.

A week later, I reached towards a nest box to gather eggs and was surprised to find an American Opossum curled up, napping in the straw. I keep a small rake in the hen house, so I grabbed that and did my best to annoy the possum out of place.

The possum hissed and grinned so I could appreciate its fifty sharp teeth, but would not leave the cozy nest. I went to get a camera and when I returned the possum was gone.

It's been back in the henhouse twice since then. I've started leaving my mother-in-law's old cane there. It's perfect for hooking the possum and dragging it out. Today, after persuading O. Possum to leave, I went to the house and got my camera. My two beagles were barking up in the woods, so I walked up there and found the possum.

It was doing a great impression of road-kill.

No amount of prodding and pulling by the dogs got a reaction

I called the dogs off and walked back down the mountain to lock them up.

Then I went back to where we'd left the possum. It had revived and was wandering away. I followed at a discreet distance until it stopped.  Possums sleep during the day and this one was feeling very nappish.

 It yawned several times, then turned and burrowed into a leafy depression.

After a few more pictures, I stopped annoying the possum and left it to nap.

He is nestled above the stream, below the rhododendron, in the middle of the next picture.

Looking in the other direction, I could see where he'd rather be.

At this point in time, the possum only seems interested in a warm bed, but if it starts eating eggs or killing chickens, then I will be forced to take care of the problem. In that case, my next shots will not be with my camera. I hope it doesn't come to that.