Archive for May, 2008

Filed Under (rural life) by admin on 27-05-2008

Lewisburg sponsors a very modest annual Memorial Day parade. It involves a handful of veterans from various wars, the high school marching band, and a bunch of emergency vehicles—fire trucks, police cars, and ambulances. The parade goes through the center of town, and turns toward a cemetery that sits between the high school and the University.

The parade draws a respectable audience, and many follow along to the cemetery where veterans perform a ceremony in honor of the soldiers who never became veterans. One or two people address the crowd, using a sound system that is woefully inadequate; most attendees, I’m sure, cannot make out what the speakers say. During the ceremony, one of the veterans places a wreath on the grave of a fallen soldier.

In the years that I’ve attended these parades and ceremonies, I have come away very sad. I think about soldiering: about putting yourself out there with the chance that you’ll never again enjoy the very things for which you’re fighting. I think about the absoluteness of death—of violent death in a foreign place, while doing something you almost certainly didn’t want to be doing in the first place. I think about the kids who go directly from high school to war to the grave. I think of the chronic uneasiness a parent must feel when a son or daughter ships out to a war zone—and the absolute despair of learning your progeny’s tour ended along with his or her life.

While memorializing our dead soldiers raises in me feelings of awe and respect… and intense gratefulness, my sadness emerges from the certainty that the killing and dying will continue long into the future. It arises from a mental review of history that reveals war as a cornerstone of civilization. It arises from the USA’s young two hundred thirty years peppered heavily with armed conflict.

While standing at the Memorial Day service, I heard in my mind the third verse of the song, “No Man’s Land” written by Eric Bogle about a 19 year old soldier who died in World War I:

I can’t help but wonder now, Willie McBride:
Do all those who lie here know just why they died?
Did you really believe them when they told you the cause?
Did you really believe this war would end all wars?
The suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame,
The killing, the dying, it was all done in vain,
You see, Willie McBride, it’s all happened again,
And again, and again, and again, and again.

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Filed Under (my country home) by admin on 19-05-2008

My daughter has expressed considerable interest in owning a horse. I like the idea, but balk at the expense and at the amount of work involved. My dream, when we left the city, was to move to a farm where having horses would have been a minor additional load—once you have a pasture to provide food, and a barn to provide housing, moving a horse in is a small step. However, if you live in a house in a subdivision, you must buy land, develop pasture, add a barn, drill a well, pay to have electric service added, and otherwise toil to prepare for a horse… unless you buy a farm—but then why did you buy a house in a subdivision?

So, there is a major intersection between my daughter’s dream of owning a horse, and my dream of living on a farm. But my daughter hasn’t been particularly whiny or persuasive about her dream… in fact, while she’s shown a lot of interest in horses, only recently did she start making bold, declarative statements about her wants—statements such as, “I want to own a horse,” and “We should live on a farm.”

So, to entertain our mutual dreams, on our way back from my daughter’s last horse-riding lesson, I took her for a drive past some of the farms I find particularly appealing. Along the road leading to my last sight-seeing destination, we came upon a large fenced pasture with a farm pond and a bunch of cows hanging around in the shade of a wooded area. On a hillside, far from the crowd of cows, was a small evergreen tree that had the attention of a solo cow who was enthusiastically rubbing its head in the branches of the tree.

My daughter and I watched for several minutes, musing about the cow’s relationship to the tree: Does the cow rub its neck often, we mused, or is this a rare treat that we happened onto at just the right moment? Does this cow have exclusive rights to the tree, or do the cows take turns scratching their heads and necks? Does the poor tree sometimes suffer abuse from several cows at once?

After a time, we noticed evidence that that lone tree drew considerable attention from the cow—or cows—in the pasture: there was a dirt track worn on the ground around it. Someone has spent enough time at the tree to kill off the vegetation that grew at its roots.

I imagine that being hairy and standing around outside most of your life might result in at least some skin irritation. I think if my cow spent so much time scratching itself, I’d take a break from the rest of the farm work, and give the poor animal a bath.

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Filed Under (rural life) by admin on 14-05-2008

I hate house sparrows. These beasts, also called English sparrows, are an invasive bird species that aggressively abuses native birds. A house sparrow is a rather drab brown and tan bird. It’s small and fearless, nesting among humans in just about any available nook or crevasse.

If a house sparrow has a song, I don’t think I’ve ever heard it. I have heard a house sparrow’s annoying, persistent chirp—the same grating tone again and again and again. A house sparrow chirps this way as it blockades entries to nesting boxes; impedes access to feeders; and generally harasses other birds, squirrels, chipmunks, dogs, and people.

In contrast, there are several bird species native to the United States that have all kinds of character and color. For example, the robin has its trademarked red breast and, while it also will nest anywhere and chirp harassingly, it tends to ignore birds or other species, and it offers up real songs from time to time.

There are far more exciting natives, and from occasional articles in the local paper, you’d think these birds would be easy to attract… actually, they are easy to attract. I hung a nesting box one spring, and almost immediately a bluebird couple moved into it. Another spring, I raised a twelve-room purple martin condominium twenty feet above my back yard, and purple martins came! (Purple martins are swallow-tailed birds that are blue on top and cream underneath–well, the adult males are all blue. They soar and swoop over a neighborhood, chowing on insects and flashing purple when the sunlight hits them just so.)

Most cool of all: every season that we’ve bothered to hang a hummingbird feeder, hummingbirds have come. When the garden fills with blossoms, we don’t even need a feeder to attract hummers… they arrive anyway.

Now for the ugly part: within a day of the bluebirds moving into my nesting box, house sparrows started harassing them, and a day later the bluebirds left. Within a day of the purple martins moving into my condominiums, house sparrows harassed them and a day later the martins were gone. (Thankfully, house sparrows care nothing of hummingbirds.)

This spring, a pair of Carolina wrens discovered the purple martin condos (now standing only six feet above the yard), and nested in one of them. A Carolina wren is a very small brown bird with a tight, intricate pattern woven into its feathers—as though it’s wearing a fine tweed. Wrens actually sing, and they’re uncommon enough, that it’s always a pleasure to see them flitting around the garden.

Of course, the bad boy house sparrows descended on the purple martin condos, strutting in front of the entrance to the wrens’ home, and chirping that bone-headed chirp. The wrens—smaller birds than the sparrows—stood their ground. They didn’t directly challenge the sparrows, but they stayed on the nearby garden fence, on the play set, and on the ground beneath the martin condos. The sparrows carried on for hours, but I saw the next day that the Carolina wrens were still coming and going at their purple martin condo home.

I’m glad that some native American birds can hold their own against house sparrows. The bird books encourage: If you encounter these bad boys of birds, kill them. I haven’t figured out how to do that without breaking a law. But, when I find house sparrow nests in my yard, I destroy them repeatedly, seeing the sparrows rebuild day-after-day until finally they leave, or they build somewhere else out of my reach.

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Filed Under (my country home) by admin on 09-05-2008

On a few very special mornings each year, there is a nearly surreal nature show in the fields of rural communities. Overnight, thousands of spiders hang webs on nearly every stalk, twig, and blade of grass. That in itself may not make a great show—under normal circumstances you might not even notice the fine threads of the webs. But when atmospheric conditions are just right, a heavy dew gathers on the webs, turning them into clouds in the morning light: clouds in the weeds; wispy puffs of white.

When I see the webs on those dewy mornings, I marvel at how many spiders must live in every cubic yard of field-space. Can those webs capture enough insects to feed all the spiders? Are they all built by the same type of spider? If there are so many of this one type of spider, how many of every other crawly critter must there be? On a short walk through a meadow, it follows that I’m disturbing hundreds of thousands—perhaps millions of spiders and insects!

They don’t seem to mind… in fact, for all the insects and spiders that must surround us, it’s amazing how few of them we actually see.

In any case, nature produces these awesome shows but a few mornings each year. I wish a photograph could do justice to the subtle beauty of a meadow of spider web clouds.

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Filed Under (rural life, rural living) by admin on 06-05-2008

Cocoa has a no-kill, bring-them-back alive sensibility as she hunts for ticks in the woods in our neighborhood. I remove a tick by grabbing it and slowly pulling it away from Cocoa’s skin. Sometimes the tick lets go, sometimes its abdomen pops off, leaving the rest to die and fall out days or weeks later. The bump over Cocoa’s eye is what’s left of a tick that didn’t let go.

My dog, Cocoa, is a hunting dog. She is a Chocolate Labrador Retriever, bred to float easily, and to withstand cold water in cold weather. As a lab, she is good-natured and very patient; the patience is a hunting instinct that would let a Labrador Retriever sneak up on prey while standing in plain sight. Perhaps you’ve seen a dog with this instinct at work:

The intended prey may be chewing grass or nibbling nuts on the ground. When the dog spots the prey—let’s say the prey is a rabbit eating dandelions—the dog freezes, gauging whether the rabbit has noticed. If the rabbit is calm, the dog keeps its gaze locked and gingerly moves forward. When the rabbit moves, the dog freezes. When the rabbit looks unconcerned, the dog moves.

As the lab gets closer to the rabbit, the dog may start to drool. The intensity of its expression and its steadfast deliberation can make the dog look deranged; if you didn’t see the rabbit, you’d consider calling a veterinarian or a humane officer.

Rabbits (and squirrels in the same situation) can be surprisingly oblivious: I’ve seen a squirrel look directly at a stalking dog just five feet away, and then go back to gnawing whatever it had in its hands.

So, the lab continues to inch forward until the rabbit is actually inside the dog’s mouth (in the case of a dim, inexperienced rabbit), or until the rabbit bolts. In the second scenario, the dog also bolts, and a foot race ensues until the rabbit is safely beyond the reach of the dog… or the rabbit is inside the dog’s mouth.

Cocoa’s Special Hunting Skill

Cocoa has demonstrated an uncanny hunting ability that I doubt dog breeders anticipated when they were mixing up Labrador Retriever genes. Rabbits and squirrels are safe in my neighborhood; Cocoa the purebred Chocolate Lab hunts for ticks. Amazingly, she doesn’t need to stalk or sneak or employ any stealth technology. She simply crashes about in the undergrowth and invariably captures several small pets each year.

I’ve pulled ticks off of her in spring, summer, fall, and even winter—it seems that a few warm days in winter can rouse those nasty arachnids and turn them into easy targets… easy targets for my amazing hunting dog to score. I never pulled a tick off a dog in the city; Cocoa’s special ability would be wasted there.

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Filed Under (my country home, rural life, rural living) by admin on 02-05-2008

Until her hatchlings were big enough to strike out on their own, this mother made her home in my garden—coming and going through an opening I made in the fence just for her.

For the past four or five years, rabbits have made their homes in the yard of my country home. Two years in a row, I failed to get my vegetable garden in shape before there was a rabbit nesting in the humus I’d applied in the fall. The first year, the female rabbit dug down through grass clippings into the soil and gave birth to three babies in that hole.

One day, rain fell so heavily that every depression in my yard filled with standing water. It occurred to me that this couldn’t be good for the bunnies, and sure enough: when I peeked at the nest, I saw the babies had drowned.

Fenced In Rabbit

In the next season, I finished planting my garden and I erected the rabbit fence I’d built years earlier. I noticed immediately that a rabbit was eying the fence and looking a little anxious… and it dawned on me that this rabbit was a mommy and I had just cut off access to her babies. I opened a panel in the fence, and shared my garden for several weeks as two out of three rabbit puppies grew big enough to leave the garden and seek their fortunes. (A third baby died a few days after the bunnies left their nest.)

I haven’t had rabbits in the garden for a few years now, but last year one laid eggs under the forsythia in the front yard, and this year there’s a nest under the shrubs that grow outside my office windows.

Rural Living with an Old Friend

I like to think that this year’s mommy rabbit is the same one that started in my garden so many years ago. During that second year when we shared my garden, she showed little fear toward me. In subsequent years, mommy rabbit has shown the same fearlessness—letting me get within about six feet before freezing in preparation to bolt. Last night, for example, I walked past her to my car, opened the door, and sat on the seat as she lay in the grass next to the driveway.

I’ve come to like the wild rabbits for three reasons: 1. They’re cute. 2. They require almost no care—as if I have pets but I don’t have to do anything for them. 3. They eat weeds. I’ve seen this again and again over the years: mommy rabbit lays flat on her stomach and daintily snips a dandelion stem off close to the ground. Then she pulls the stem into her mouth bite-by-bite—vaguely suggesting the spaghetti scene from Lady and the Tramp.

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