Harbingers

The dogs and I have been walking in the hour before dusk each day. I used to call the stretch of land between the woods where we walk the deer pasture, or the upper pasture. We do have a lower pasture–and it is pasture enough. Flat, big enough for a horse or two. It was seeded with rye (I think) by a neighbor who asked if he could plant, then cut it for feed. That was two years ago, and we haven’t heard from him since that last early-fall mowing. But that pasture is too close to the road for dog safety and quite near the pond. The land gets marshy near the water, and I sometimes suddenly find my Wellies stuck in mud up to my calves.

I’m no farm girl, but I’ve finally figured out that the upper pasture isn’t a pasture at all. I suppose we could graze a few animals up there. There are certain members of our family who think that–with the addition of a fence–a herd of alpacas would be perfect for it. (The idea of medicating, herding, cleaning-up-after, or breeding alpacas, let alone protecting them from the local coyotes, gives me hives like I haven’t had since I was a tantrum-throwing toddler.) But I prefer to see it unfenced and wild. Because we let flowers and weeds and brambles and milkweed and yarrow cover it in season, and keep a path mowed around it for walking, I think it more properly should be called a meadow. It’s so like the meadows I pictured when I read stories about living in the country when I was a child. Lucky me. Who knew I would eventually have my own meadow?

The dogs certainly don’t mind romping in the cold. Hrothgar, the Lab, prefers the ground hard. If it’s too mucky, or if it’s raining, he tries to get away with doing his business in the front yard, rather than up the hill. He may be the only water-shy Lab on the planet. Scout, our grocery-store-cart, part-Rottie, part Rat Terrier, just wants to be out! out! out! Preferably carrying a stick! stick! stick! The past two weeks, though, have brought us an early faux-spring. The ground is soaked with melted snow and perilous with mole, vole, and (I hope not) groundhog tunnels. It’s the wind that carries the real changes. The dogs are mad with investigation, torn between standing still and sniffing the air, and running off into the woods looking for deer, squirrels, and roaming dogs.

A few years ago, we had a long, warm spell in January, and the local apple and peach orchard trees were fooled into budding. Weeks of ice and cold followed, and the orchards and vineyards suffered a pitiful harvest. I’m hopeful that, now that the end of February is in sight, the real danger of freezing is past.  Farming has always seemed like such a romantic pursuit to me. But it has to be one of the riskiest professions one can think of. I couldn’t live with that kind of suspense and worry.

This week has brought us bats. I don’t know where they come from. (I don’t EVEN want to think it might be our attic.) They come out early, around five or five-thirty, before you could call it well and truly dusk. I only saw a pair the first couple of days. Now there are at least four or five. One always comes over to check me out, doing a quick flyover, then daring to come a little closer. I carry a big walking stick and have fantasies about being bitten, and then capturing or whacking the bat so I can take it to the hospital with me to check to see if it has rabies or not. Actually, it would make me quite sad to have to whack the bat. Ever since reading the children’s book, Stellaluna, to our daughter about fifteen years ago, I’ve liked bats. That wonderful book almost replaced the nightmarish memory of my five-year-old self coming home with my parents and baby sister to a bright apartment hallway in which a bat was blindly trapped. I remember a broom and a lot of screaming. I don’t want to know how it ended.

I spent many hours in the car today, so my walk with the dogs was like a deep breath of freedom. The afternoon was windy, overcast and gray, a big change from the layered sunsets we’ve been having lately. The sky was dull. The clouds were so thick they seemed immobile despite the wind. Without a brilliant sky to look at, I found myself listening harder.

(photo link/credit)

We live on the Mississippi Flyway, and I’m always listening for Canadian geese flying overhead. On Wednesday morning, less than a minute after I woke up, I heard geese close by. Sure enough, when I looked outside, I saw nine or ten down on the pond. We’ve lived here almost five years, and I had never seen geese on it. I was desperate to get a picture, but I was more afraid of frightening them away. P says that our pond just isn’t big enough to attract them. It felt like such a blessing to have them there, that I don’t need a photo to remember it.  Today, after seeing several enormous flocks on my travels, I heard a scant few honking overhead during our walk. I stood still, waiting, hoping that they would land by the pond. But they didn’t.

It sounds like such a cliche to write about trees creaking in the wind, doesn’t it? I’m afraid there’s no other word for what was going on in our woods today. It wasn’t all the trees, but just a couple. They sounded  like stiff hinges on a door. It was such a sad, strange sound. There was no single branch waving loose. It sounded like a whole tree crying out, dry and vulnerable in the wind.

I worry about our trees. I’m not used to untended woodland. So many trees are dead, or dying. Yet, there are thousands of new trees competing to replace them. I want to go out with a chainsaw and tidy things up–cut up the hundred or more broken trees and take out some of the competition, just like they do in our state parks. I want to do a thorough dusting and vacuuming. I want to be able to sigh with pleasure at the sight of our acres of well-tended woods. But, I digress…

Today the wind also brought me the sound of…spring peepers. I almost didn’t hear them. Their distant singing blended with the wind, so I had to stop and listen closely. There they were, way, way down in a ravine. They haven’t come up very far, yet. They seem to be only in the low places for now. I don’t know why I’ve always thought of their tiny songs as belonging only to summer. We have an enormous variety of frogs and toads around here, and they bring a thousand different voices. But, right now, it’s just the spring peepers, all by their lonesome. I haven’t the faintest idea what they’re eating (please say it’s too early for bugs), and I hope they have sheltering plans for the cold that’s sure to return.

We don’t have a lot of land, but what we have is intense.

Sometimes I’m hesitant to go outside and experience everything our little corner of the earth has to offer. My senses are overwhelmed.  Will it be too cold? Or too humid? Are the snakes up and awake? What if something bites? How many more trees are turning white with disease? Have transient dogs littered our pathways? Why is part of our hillside sometimes dripping wet, as though a wellspring is about to burst through? Are the coyotes we’ve seen recently setting up camp in the nearest ravine? Change is constant and complex. It comes in waves, and in layers, like the clouds. Or it comes in tiny voices.

Listen.

2 thoughts on “Harbingers”

  1. Coolkayaker1 says:

    “Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.” – The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger, Holden Caulfield,Chapter 22

  2. Coolkayaker1 says:

    Wow, that was a wonderful read, about the pastures and the rye and the dusky walks with the dogs. Snakes, coyotes–sounds like an allegorical novel about “good and bad” is right there in your own backyard.

    The video reminds me of sunsets as a child growing up in rural Massachusetts. Now, in Illinois where I live, no such wooded areas. Thank you for sharing on Notes From The Handbasket.

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