…this wonderful encounter with a small miracle, this tiny fawn in the hayfield, lifted my spirits and gave me renewed hope that a mad, mad world may yet come to its senses and brighter days are ahead.
The nursery is off limits
Our hayfields are officially off limits for the next couple months. The daily walks with our bird dogs around the perimeter of the fields are cancelled until the end of June, and maybe the first few weeks of July.
We are in the peak of the spring’s infestation of wood ticks and deer ticks, but that is not the reason we have declared ourselves personae non gratae (and also canaes non gratae) in the twenty-plus acres of grassland habitat atop our hillside farm. We are staying away so that we do not interfere with baby care.
On November days wandering near the 100th Meridian
(fabled barrier to rainfall in the Great American Desert),
the tail end of the grouse season when birds are flighty,
or midway through deer season when heart-stopper bucks
are wise or dead and yesterday’s doe a should-have regret,
prairie wind writhing lewdly through wool and flannel,
groping to touch some naked skin where it can slip in
and pull away my warm-centered self, turn me inside out,
I learn anew my body is the last true refuge, a fragile home,
in a world open to an unending sky with unending desire
to wear down and smooth away rough and ragged intrusions.
These are days when often comes the uncontrolled fortune
to shiver free of this body’s shelter and for so brief a time
be windborne with the bluestem seed and tufts of grama
and all else carried by winds that mean to move us from
inside’s tight-closed and close-huddled here-and-now
to outside’s everywhere-and-forever wilderness.
At the moment of escape I pull my coat tighter and myself back.
Back into my refuge, this shelter, shielding from prairie wind
a soul not yet free to venture across the 100th Meridian.
A harder task will be halting those fantasy purchases – buying things we need for the grand adventures that we know will come our way… someday. The first of the twelve steps in the cure, gentlemen, is to accept that the grand adventure train ain’t stopping at our station anymore. It’s gone. Tear up your ticket.
A simpler time of life
Coots, codgers, curmudgeons and cranks, it is time for us to make the transition from the acquisition phase of our lives to the dispersal phase. All through our long years we have paid homage – and a considerable portion of our disposable income – to the false gods of material possessions, and now we are discovering the serenity, tranquility, and freedom that comes with the release of worldly goods.
Simplify, simplify, simply. That’s our new mantra
Use it up. Wear it out. Make it do. Do without.
The rip-rumble of the tent flap’s zipper sets the dogs whining in their travel crates. They’ve been awake, stretching and yawning, for ten minutes or more, ever since the creak and thump of my cot-flip interrupted their sweet and untroubled sleep, but they are experienced camp dogs: the tent zipper, that’s the sound that means the hunters are alive, the beginnings of another day of dog-joy.
Bird hunters’ camp
Left eye glued closed with gunk from seeping tear ducts and right eye blurred by its retinal blind spot, I can still see the tent wall aglow in the pre-dawn wash of sunlight the flows over the hills east of our prairie campsite. We have survived another night.
Through the window mesh I spy the last bottle of beer from the six-pack atop the Coleman stove on the picnic table, but my mind and body are not asking for alcohol; they are pleading for ibuprofen and caffeine. A few pills and lots of coffee. Strong coffee.
Three days of bird hunting and tent camping in late September – that’s my limit. This is the fourth day. Going back to sleep is not an option; I have to pee. But there is a chill in the morning air and I’m warm in my mummy bag, top cord drawn tight to close its hood over my head and across my face. Doze just a few minutes more? No, I urgently need to go, so I struggle out, arthritic hands clumsily undoing the draw cord and trying to slide the down bag’s zipper open without jamming it.
Photo by Patti Johnson
You cannot read without a tug at your heartstrings an inscription that honors and mourns a Beloved daughter, sister, wife, mother, grandmother, and friend. Or the grave marker of a war veteran who Gave his life so that others might live. Some are more stark but just as heartbreaking despite the lack of grammar skills by the stone carver: Last of his famly.
Wandering through rural cemeteries, like browsing the shelves of the fiction section of a small-town library, you come upon some “book covers” that hint at fascinating stories never to be read but forever teasing your imagination. Headstones, monuments, and cenotaphs stand in rows of somber tomes that recount the same theme and message: The gift of life arrives in a flash of fire, burns wildly through the short span of years, and is gone with a final flicker in our smoldering ash. All that remains is our story, and that is soon closed and put on the shelf.
Crudely carved in the face of soft stone that has become weathered and worn over the decades, a few barely readable epitaphs on tombstones in old churchyards give us a glimpse of life stories that deserve to be taken from the archives, dusted off, and read again – if only we could trust the writers to tell the tale in full and in truth. The headstones, leaning this way and that and no longer marking any obvious gravesites, promise some captivating stories of hardship, struggle, reward, love, kindness, loyalty, courage, friendship – all the noble attributes of humanity. And many of the disreputable ones.
We choose Eastern Redcedar for our wildlife habitat plantings, partly because it is a hardy species of tree but mostly because it is free: saplings sprout prolifically across our fallow hayfields.
Some of these failed transplants are third, fourth or even fifth attempts because I am sure that eventually one will take hold and grow to full maturity. As the Roman scholar Persius assured us, “Vincit qui patitur.” (He conquers who endures.) Maybe a sixth transplant attempt will succeed.
Filling the gaps
Come spring, the gaps appear. Each year we plant a scattering of trees and shrubs that we hope will grow and expand into thickets of wildlife habitat, and each spring we discover that a goodly number did not survive the hardships of a North Country winter. The plantings have gaps that need some attention.
In most of the gaps stand scraggly gray skeletons of dead cedar saplings with a scattering of dry needles at the base of their stems. I do a “body count” as I walk through the shelterbelts that border our hayfields and the 15-acre woodland that covers the face of the steep bluff on the west side of our farm. Twenty-five or thirty casualties this winter, more than have succumbed some years but far fewer than the disastrous drought years of 1987-88.
I mark the gaps in the wildlife plantings with wire flags, those three-inch squares of orange plastic attached to the top of two-foot lengths of steel wire. A healthy fifty-yard stretch of shelter belt may be marred by only two or three flags, but some struggling plantings take on a crime scene appearance with the location of each piece of 9mm brass carefully marked so that investigators can determine where shooters with semi-automatic handguns stood as they executed their victims. Some of the tree deaths were clearly caused by the deprivations of field mice or deer, but many are of indeterminate causes.
Dueling may not be the perfect solution, but why not give it a try? We are killing about 25 people each day with handguns anyway, so why not structure, regulate and conduct all that mayhem and slaughter in a way that would be socially acceptable, even honorable, and probably taxable?
Ten paces, turn, and fire
A pair of dueling pistols on display in New Orleans’ French Market inspired a thought: Congress could solve many of America’s current problems by repealing the 1859 laws that prohibit dueling.
Those replica flintlock pistols offered for sale in the historic open-air market, a featured landmark of downtown New Orleans, were not genuine. Nestled in a felt-lined faux-walnut display case, the muzzle-loader pistols were cheap coffee table décor with chromed plastic barrels, pot metal actions, and teak stocks – picturesque and quaintly charming but completely non-functional. Nevertheless, they spoke to me of an age when social disputes were resolved in a more direct and conclusive manner that eliminated much of the petty bickering, recurring arguments, nuisance litigation, and political umbrage that are the plagues of our social discourse today.