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 (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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Filed Under (rural life, rural living) by admin on 28-04-2008

Mommy duck maintains complete discipline with her twelve offspring. On land, her brood stays close to her. She was very gracious about posing for this photo.

Every season has its virtues, but spring, I think, has most of all. When the snow finally goes, the woods begin a subtle transformation from browns and grays. First, the undergrowth develops a vague cloud of green. Then the crowns of the trees turn several shades of red and purple and, from a distance, the forest delivers a color show as interesting as that of autumn, but considerably subdued. Eventually, the leaf scales pop, and a yellow-green haze lingers for a week or so as the trees make seeds. Finally, leaves emerge and the woods become nearly fully green.

As plants awaken, rabbits, mice, woodchucks, skunks, raccoons, and opossum appear more frequently. The birds change—not individual birds, but rather the types of birds you see. Varieties that have gone for the winter return, and some that merely pass through as they migrate appear for a time, and then not again till fall.

Reproduction is a Spring Sport

Most entertaining to me as spring unfolds is the explosive reproduction taking place all around. Usually, rabbits make puppies somewhere in my yard—under a bush, in a pile of leaves, or in my garden. Three or four varieties of birds nest in the trees in my yard. This year it looks as though a song sparrow has settled, a house sparrow (as always), and a robin or two. Most entertaining of all: there are ducks in the neighborhood.

Year-after-year there has been at least one pair of ducks that eventually produces a crop of ducklings. While our local ducklings haven’t hatched, it’s easy to spot herds of ducklings all over Lewisburg.

At the golf course yesterday, I watched a mother waddling along with twelve ducklings. There’s a similar family there every year. Usually, they hang around for several weeks as the number of ducklings decreases gradually. It’s clear why the duck hatches so many eggs: with cats, dogs, cars, and hawks lurking, a duckling has a lot of obstacles to avoid if it’s going to become a duck.

Survivel Strategies of Yore

It would be hard for humans to rely on this strategy for survival: Imagine the emotional issues if our offspring were more likely to die in childhood than they were to grow into adults. It’s sobering to realize that not even a hundred years ago, the odds were close to that bad; people hatched a lot of babies to ensure that at least some of them would reach adulthood.

Sobered, I’m going to enjoy the ducklings while I can. Watching twelve of them follow one mother suggests controlled chaos. The ducklings move in twelve directions at once, taking as many paths, yet they arrive together wherever they go. It’s comical. It’s fun. It’s spring!

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Filed Under (rural life, rural living) by admin on 26-04-2008

I’ve played more than 100 golf courses, but only a handful where using a driver on the tee consistently got me into trouble. A “thinking person’s” course should make you consider where to aim your drive, what club to use on your approach, where to miss if you make a mistake, and how to play recovery shots. If “thinking” means, “I wonder how many yards to the first green-sized patch of fairway,” and you’re not playing a par three, something is very wrong with the hole.

Please forgive me if you’re looking for a vignette about rural living… today I’m stewing about a golf-related issue, and this whole entry is about golf. I try not to spend so much time on golf, but I have a bit of an addiction problem with the game, so it’s likely to come up from time-to-time.

You might remember my friend who likes yard work. I helped him dispose of sod he removed from his lawn: we loaded it onto his truck there, and unloaded it onto a low spot in my yard. He told me it’s OK to refer to him by name… it’s Heber. By way of thanks for the heavy lifting and the local landfill access, Heber treated me to a day of golf in the Poconos.

A Great Day Out?

We left home at 5:30 AM and drove about an hour and fifteen minutes to a resort for a morning round, lunch, and then an afternoon round. It was my kind of golf day; I’d play from dawn-till-dusk every day if I could afford it (and if my body held up).

The first round held serious promise as we left the starter’s area: a wild turkey scurried off the tee box and into the woods. We faced a par five that began with a massively down-hill tee shot, but the fairway turned sharply to the right at what our scorecard told us was about 180 yards away. We couldn’t see anything past that turn, so we wondered: can we safely cut the corner? How far do we have to carry the ball to safety? Should we lay up off the tee?

When I Wonder: Are They Kidding?

Information on the score card didn’t help—nor did the GPS computer mounted on the golf cart. Never having seen the course, all we could do was guess what to do. That’s a common problem with a first round on any course… and the reason we were playing two rounds on the same course. On the first round, we’d learn the layout enough that we could play intelligently on our second round.

So, I made mental notes of the holes: where were the safe landing areas from the tee boxes, and how far would I have to hit the ball to reach them? Unfortunately, cataloging this information led to disappointment: the course represented some of the most offensive design elements conceived in golf.

On fully nine holes that were par of either four or five, using a driver on the tee would be a mistake. What could you do with a driver on those holes? Blow the ball through a dogleg, or hit the ball into a waste area or hazard that crossed the fairway. On the twelfth hole, for example, hitting a driver straight ahead off the tee would send your ball over a bunker and into a heavy growth of mountain laurel. Cutting a driver over the corner of the fairway’s dogleg with modest fade would land the ball in the middle of the fairway, but the ball would bounce forward into a waste area that crosses in front of the green.

Oh, so it’s Par Three Golf

The correct play on the first hole—a par five—was to hit a five iron into a landing area, and then either blast a fairway wood at the green for a low-percentage shot, or pop a nine iron down to another landing area from where a second nine iron could reach the green. Basically, you’re playing three par three holes and calling it a par five.

I’m a happy golfer when I play a course that rewards me for good hits with a driver on all or most of the par fours and fives. I can forgive, perhaps, one or two cheesy holes where I have to hit a green-sized target with a lay up, and then play a similar approach to the green. So, while I had a great day out with Heber, and the course was gorgeous, I won’t play there again. With so many tricked-up fairways, you start to wonder why there aren’t windmills and clown faces on the greens.

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The old peach tree that came with my house rotted through and fell over two seasons ago. Still, it’s covered with flowers, and is likely to produce a decent crop this year. Woodchucks like this dying tree. In the fall they stand on their hind legs to reach the lowest peaches, and in the winter they chew on the tender bark (as you can see on the branch in the lower-right of the photo).

My county home came with three apple trees, a peach tree, and a pear tree. Having this convenient source of free fruit suits me very well: if I’m growing plants in my yard, I want them to provide food for me. Unfortunately, fruit trees are challenging.

As plants go, fruit trees are among the stupidest. They may produce flowers any time in April… with no regard for when the last frost is going to hit. Some years, this means a late frost destroys a tree’s young fruit. If trees had any brains, they’d keep their buds closed until after the last frost.

Fruit trees have no sense about their own personal space. They grow branches every which-way, filling spaces between branches with more branches. New growth shades out old growth, and branches often collide with and cross each other. In wind, they rub together causing damage where insects and fungus can take hold. To keep trees healthy and promote healthy fruit-production on all the branches, it’s important to prune the excess growth—usually in late winter.

Fruit Trees are Uncooperative

Fruit trees don’t automatically do what’s best for the fruit-eater. For example, trees with hardy roots often produce fruit that isn’t particularly appealing to eat. Roots of trees that make delectable fruit may succumb easily to insects, rot, and other problems. Many of the fruit trees you buy in a garden store have a desirable fruit variety grafted onto a hardy root of a different variety.

When there is no killing frost, a tree can produce thousands of flowers. If all the flowers mature, they’ll produce small fruits. Professional fruit growers pluck hundreds of undeveloped fruits, leaving only a few on each branch to mature by the end of the season. The survivors are often two or three times as large as they’d be without that early culling.

My pear and peach tree aren’t healthy. In fact, three years ago, we planted a second peach tree because the old one looks ready to go. How ready? The main trunk rotted part way through, and the entire crown of the tree fell over two years ago. But the healthy wood of the trunk didn’t break—it bent.

Last year, with its crown resting on the ground, that old tree produced a whole bunch of rather small, very sweet peaches… and this year the crown is covered once again with flowers. I imagine in a week or two I’ll be out there plucking off nascent peaches so the ones that survive the summer grow large.

Getting a Fruit Harvest Requires Work

All my other fruit trees are also covered with flowers—more than I remember from any past spring. This means work. While I want to eat the peaches pears and apples, so do hundreds of thousands of insects. They’re already lurking, but I can’t take action until the blossoms drop—anything that discourages fruit-eating insects can also put off the bees that will pollinate the flowers. I’ll need to spray the trees with bug repellent repeatedly through the spring and summer.

So, by the time I’ve done the winter pruning, the mid-spring culling, and the repeated bug spraying, I’ll have spent, perhaps, twenty hours messing with my trees. The bug spray will cost twenty or thirty dollars by the end of the season. Of course, I also have to pick the fruit, but that’s no more work than buying it at a farmers’ market.

If all goes well, I’ll end up with four or five bushels of apples, and, perhaps, a bushel each of pears and peaches. It’s a terrific return on such a modest investment.

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Filed Under (my country home, rural life, rural living) by admin on 16-04-2008

The leaves of Zoysia grass (top) have the unfortunate characteristic of dying during the winter. A Zoysia lawn is brown for the first month or so of spring. My friend’s discarded sod on the bottom right is weed-free. It may never look as good as my kidney-shaped patch of Zoysia, but it smothered, perhaps, 130 dandelions like the ones on the left of the lower photo.

As I admitted in an earlier entry, I’m not fond of yard work. In fact, I mow the lawn only when its length threatens to choke the mower. There have been years in which I’ve fired up the mower only a half dozen times… though in rainy years, it’s been as often as weekly. After mowing, it’s a shooting match whether any other lawn maintenance happens at all.

My lack of interest in yard work led me some years ago to plant several hundred Zoysia plugs in the middle of my back yard. You might have seen ads for Zoysia grass. They promise a lawn so dense that the grass chokes out weeds. They promise green when other grasses are dying because of drought. They promise a lawn that endures cold winters and hot summers. They promise a lawn that you only need to mow a few times each year!

The product seems to have delivered: I now have a healthy, kidney-shaped patch of Zosyia grass in the middle of my back yard. It’s thick and soft and nearly weed-free. Thing is, it would take several thousand Zoysia “plugs” to plant the entire yard, and quite honestly, putting 600 plugs in the ground was not fun. I now officially offer the non-Zoysia area of my lawn as a test plot for Zoysia Farm Nursuries. Please, Mr and Mrs Zoysia, send a crew and demonstrate to future customers how easy it is to plant a third of an acre with plugs. In the meantime, most of my lawn is a mess with dandelions, crab grass, and bare spots.

Good Rural Living

In contrast, I have a friend who very much enjoys yard work. Several hundred square feet of grass in his yard had fared poorly through the years because it received almost no sun. This spring, he rented a machine that cleanly slices the grass—and about an inch-and-a-half of roots and soil—away from the ground. His plan was to load the old sod onto his pickup truck, and pay $24 per ton to unload the truck at a municipal dump. I figured to save him the dumping fee as well as some gasoline.

So, this morning I helped lift dozens of chunks of sod off the ground onto a pickup truck in my friend’s yard, and then lift it off the truck onto the ground in my yard. There’s a lot of slope in one corner of my yard, and for years I’ve wanted to add topsoil and level things out—but doing that is more yard work than simply mowing, so it wasn’t going to get done… until the topsoil practically fell into my lap.

The way we unloaded it in my yard, I don’t expect the sod will grow into a gorgeous carpet of grass—it will never match the Zoysia kidney about ten paces away. But the unplanned half day of yard work has gotten me closer to my dream of a level yard; if my buddy wants to replace the rest of his grass with new sod, my yard has a low corner waiting to hold the old stuff.

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Filed Under (rural life, rural living) by admin on 11-04-2008

If your school district can nab The Dallas Brass for a day, give yourselves time to promote the performance and sell tickets. For a show this good, you should have more people attending than just the parents of kids in the school band.

The music directors of the Lewisburg school district intercepted a musical ensemble that was traveling through our area. This group, The Dallas Brass, offers an unusual package: They schedule a day with the school system that includes several hours of rehearsals with the school band(s), and then an evening concert that includes the school bands for a small portion of the program.

The cynic in me expected a hack group of musicians who couldn’t cut it without obligating parents to pay to see their kid’s token participation. In part because of my cynicism, that’s how the show seemed to start. The performers were very capable and entertaining—they offered up some campy humor and impressive trumpet pieces. But I’ve heard a lot of good trumpet (just last year, one of the school band directors performed an awesome number), so they weren’t pumping me up toward a standing ovation. Things changed, however, partway through the performance when the group’s percussionist delivered a xylophone solo.

I don’t know virtuoso from hack when it comes to xylophone players. Heck, I can count on one finger the number of times I’ve heard a xylophone featured in a performance. So, if The Dallas Brass percussionist had been just good, the novelty of the experience might have made him great. But as I sat in the high school auditorium, I was sincerely impressed. Later, the ensemble featured a tuba solo that involved novel and clever technique. It had the audience laughing and excited, and again I was sincerely impressed.

Audience response drew an encore for which The Dallas Brass had planned. They played a medley of familiar songs that it’s unlikely anyone would have spliced together. It was a great finish.

So, I left the show feeling quite differently from how I’d felt going in: The Dallas Brass had won me over. My only regret was that the event had not been well-promoted: the auditorium had had empty seats. It’s a shame that a show of that caliber hadn’t sold out… but then who would have expected it to be so entertaining?

Members of The Dallas Brass obviously had a great time performing. They explained that part of their mission is to try to turn kids on to music. They’re succeeding. After the show, my child who plays trumpet reported: “I know what I want to do for a living some day. I want to play in a group like that.”

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Filed Under (my country home, rural life, rural living) by admin on 04-04-2008

Up high in a building in Boston, you see city as if it goes on forever. Up high on a hill to which my family often walks with the dog, you can see buildings in the mist: a Lewisburg neighborhood.

The last day of my visit to Boston was a little awkward. Turns out Boston Billiards doesn’t open until 11:30, so my buddy and I had to kill about an hour near the establishment before we could play (we had snagged a parking space and weren’t going to give it up).

After several hours of billiards, I dropped my friend at his apartment, and headed downtown where I had hoped to scoop several dozen photos of Downtown Crossing, Chinatown, the waterfront, the North End, and Faneuil Hall. The late start at the pool hall made me late downtown, so I barely got beyond the financial district before my scheduled visit with a childhood buddy whose career has landed him in Boston.

This friend has a windowed office on the 31st floor with an excellent view of Boston looking west. Before we headed out, we poked into a few other offices so I could shoot the views North and East as well. Whenever I’ve visited a high-rise office, I’ve been awed by the view and have imagined how easily I could squander hours simply watching the city undulate.

I chauffeured my friend north and then west through commuter traffic that quickly revived my appreciation for rural life: on the expressway, I could see more cars ahead of me at any moment than I’d be able to tally on a drive from one end of Lewisburg to the other. After a pleasant dinner, way too little catching up with my friend’s family, and a short night on an inflatable bed in the basement, I made the six-and-a-half hour drive back to Lewisburg.

Turkeys

For the last few miles of my trip, I hopped off the interstate, and drove a more leisurely two-lane road. Whenever I drive, I glance at the trees and fields, watching for anything that might make an interesting photograph. As I passed a hedgerow about five miles from Lewisburg, I glimpsed a herd of wild turkeys near the top of a rise, and I pulled over to take pictures. Wild Turkeys don’t seem all too fond of me: they left in a hurry. I managed to shoot a few, but their mothers couldn’t tell them apart in my photos.

When I rolled into Lewisburg, time slowed just a bit. My family was still in school, the dog acted very happy to see me, and I was happy to see her. The grocery shopping hasn’t been done this week, and the recyclables are escaping from their bin. Most importantly: my wife has kept the kids alive. I’m glad to return to rural living.

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