Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Invisible All Around Us

For the last two years, ice storms have kept turnout low for bear hunting season around here. As a result, we have more than the usual number of black bears in the neighborhood. A mother bear with three cubs was seen crossing the state highway from the wildlife preserve into our North Orchard in broad daylight this Monday. She is accused of demolishing my neighbor’s beeyard about a mile south of here, although another bear was caught inside the fence, having squeezed herself under three strands of electric barbed wire to do in a few hundred thousand more pollinators. We got to see this second personage, a yearling female—or at least we saw her unrepentant snout—when she was captured in a live bear trap that looks like a cross between a culvert pipe and one of those pull-behind pork barbecue smokers. The photo above shows an example of such posted online by China Creek Internet Service in British Columbia.

I didn’t see the bear family as they crossed our hill (and I hope my dogs never do either), but I found some scat on the single-track trail I mow with the push mower through the every-day-taller goldenrod and grasses of the orchard. The aforementioned dogs were pretty definite about which way the bears went after relieving themselves (straight for the barnyard, but I am not worried, because bears are about the only thing around here besides me that doesn’t eat chickens).

If I hadn’t heard from the postmaster at the Dimock four corners that somebody saw the bears crossing the road, I would not have checked the trail for scat. And I never would have known those bears were out there, at lunchtime, while I worked in my office and the kids played in the woods. One thing you learn when you live here in the winter is that the snow is full of animals who live all around you and you never see them. They are in the business of your not seeing them. And if you can hide several hundred pounds of moving black bear on a sunny hillside, who knows what else there is in this world? Pretty much everything, I guess.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Postcard From Maine

We are sitting on Jasper Beach, Maine, near the town of Bucksport. We are farther Down East than I’ve ever been, past Acadia National Park by a good long way, and an hour past the town of Milbridge, where we’re staying at Sea Cairn, a 1933 camp house in an enchanted fir and reindeer lichen forest on a point of land in Narraguagas Bay. The human history of the place has been as patiently acquired as the natural history, which contributes to the impression that one is vacationing on the heavily encrusted pages of a fairy story.

Jasper Beach is a fairly steep inclination of very smooth pebbles ranging in size from quail egg to dodo egg, made of every sort of rock you can think of, purple and green and white and gray, every one a door stop or mantel decoration in the making. Points of land run off to either side, creating a small fir-encrusted, mist-wreathed bay. Since we can’t take all the stones (and we have tried), we are burying the children one at a time in rocks. St. John looked like a sculpture; Isaac made a convincing Cairn Man rising from the surface of the beach; and now Phyllida appears to be getting the local spa treatment, which involves being packed from chin to sneakertip in sun-heated, organic, free range glacial moraine stones.

Canada is not that far away, with the great tidal shift of the Bay of Fundy, and even though the day is warm, you can feel that you are approaching the edge of where you will be allowed to go in this world. It is difficult to imagine what conditions would have to be like in your old homeland to inspire you to come here and try to hew a life from the wilderness. And yet much is circumstantial to your upbringing—the lobsterman who was pulling traps this morning in the mist just off the Bear’s Den shed where we slept was listening to the local classic rock station on the boat radio, deep in a work day as unfathomable to me as this stony, hissing, effervescent cove.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

On the Nature of Power

We have three cats. Originally we had one male (Mr. Darcy, a shiny black number with tuxedo highlights who bears more than a passing resemblance to Basement Cat in both appearance and spirit, and yes, he is above his company), and one female (a fat gray cat named Winter because as my then very small daughter observed, she was the color of that season). Life was peaceful. Then we lost Winter for a while last fall, and in her absence, somebody gave us a new kitten. After 2 months, Winter came home, and baby made three.

The kitten was male, as Mr. Darcy immediately apprehended. And like the little boy in A Child’s Christmas in Wales who sees another boy like himself, he hated him on sight. Now, I understand all about the need for alphas to perpetuate their own genes and not those of renegade bachelors hanging around the edges of the tribe. But in light of the fact that we’re all neutered and some of us are pacifists, for God’s sake, I thought maybe we could give the Constant World Domination a rest. But no. Sterling Underfoot, the white kitty, has grown into a fine young man while hiding in trees to avoid having his pearly butt kicked by Darth Kitty (heavy labored breathing and ponderous theme music).

A few days back, Darcy started limping on his passenger side rear paw. It comes and goes but today it is noticeably worse. If he doesn’t heal up soon, we may have to inflict healthcare on him. You would think that if even a lowly human noticed this, the other animals would have been hip to the scene days ago. But as another glorious July morning dawned, the rising sun found Sterling 30 feet up a tree, balanced with one foot on the merest twig stump, singing the epic song of I-am-trapped, trapped-I tell-you-and-like-Odysseus-I-long-to-be-home-but-I-am-not-doing-anything-about-actually-getting-myself-there, while below, Darcy limped around menacingly on three legs.

Naturally this led me to survey my landscape for things I am afraid of, to see if any of them have busted a shin. I wonder how much of our lives we spend avoiding unpleasantness whose butt we could kick with one paw tied behind our back if we had to.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Dolly Madison, A Bird Apart

Wren Cottage Farm is 10 acres of verdant Pennsylvania hillside, perched atop Woodbourne Hill in Susquehanna County. That's in the Endless Mountains for those keeping score at home. The purpose of this blog is to entertain my city friends with tales from the series Liz calls “As The Hen Turns,” and to give other rural types a sense of comfort that they are not going through this ridiculous life alone.

Today’s story is about Dolly Madison, our little turkey. We’ve never had turkeys before because I am a vegetarian, and there are some animals you really only keep around to eat. But when I was first getting started with chickens, an old-timer told me that turkeys were immune to Marek’s disease, a virus which kills unvaccinated chicks to the tune of 33-50% of your hatch. And the turkeys pass on their immunity to the chickens they live with. So I thought it would be a good $5 experiment to import a day-old turkey from Clodhopper Farm, home of my generous friends Pete and Eliza. Since the very tiny baby bird was a broadbreasted white, I named her Dolly. I figured in a week she’d be bigger than the baby chickens who were 2 weeks her elder, and they would not peck her and annoy her. Unfortunately, Dolly turned out to be not big and brassy but quiet and refined, and given to sticking her head in dark holes when she could no longer bear the ugliness of life. So we added the surname, and when I found her hiding behind the waterer with a bloody nose, I removed her from the toddler room at the chicken juvvie home and built the Madison White House out of an old dog coop we had in the yard.

Dolly is now growing madly, perhaps because she is no longer afraid for her life (you may not realize how mean chickens can be, but the pecking order is serious, and unpleasant), and although it looked for awhile like she literally did not know to come in out of the rain, she is a killer fly-catcher, which keeps the bugs down nicely in the barnyard. In a few more months, Dolly and her attendant staff of bantam English game fowl will move into the barn with the rest of the flock, but for now, she is the primary attraction in the dog garden outside the kitchen door.

And in spite of their extreme ingratitude, not a single chick has been lost to Marek’s this year.