Monday, April 9, 2012
Sunday, March 4, 2012
John Muir was on my mind this morning, as he often is when I am out rambling. He who walked 1000 miles from the mid-west to the Gulf of Mexico carrying the barest minimum of what was needed to make the trek, sleeping in barns and graveyards, begging food at farmhouses, enduring heat and cold and happy in the bargain. I have wondered at least a thousand times what life would be like if lived that way.
I spent a good part of the morning out walking through woodlands and wetlands, surrounded by song, swamp and white-throated sparrows and serenaded by bald eagles and red-shouldered hawks overhead. The marshes were filled with singing spring peepers and painted turtles littered every log above the water. Carolina chickadees pulled at narrow-leaved cattail seeds and downy fluff floated through the air like snow before settling onto the water in fuzzy tufts. Everything was right. Food was there for the taking in the water and above, nesting holes were prevalent in the beaver-killed hardwoods, shelter was to be had in the upland hollies and red cedars, water was plentiful for spawning. I lost track of time watching and, as I stood in the midst of all the busyness of day to day survival, I felt like an outsider…in the marsh but not of it.
As I turned towards home, I had the all too familiar qualms about what I would find when I got back. I would find stuff, stuff and the bother of keeping it, arranging it, and caring for it. There are some who say I have comparatively fewer possessions than many people in our society but I don’t find that pronouncement particularly convincing. I have far more possessions than many people in the world, but more to the point today, I have far more possessions than the creatures I stood so long observing this morning and far more than John Muir ever dreamed of taking on any of his long treks. Today, I envy his and their freedom.
I am asking myself once again, “why?” “Why do I have all this stuff, how does it encumber me and what am I going to do about it?” What would it be like to come home from a long walk in the wilds and not feel weighed down by possessions as I walk in the door? What would it be like to have only what I need? Perhaps, by God’s grace, this will be the year I find out. Perhaps I will figure out how to live as simply in my home as on the trail. Time will tell.
Wednesday, February 29, 2012
“When you hear the calls of the tundra swans, you are hearing the voice of the Arctic,” wrote a friend of mine a few years ago. This past week, the swans have been winging their way north through the light of day and dark of night and last evening their calls reverberated through the night sky high overheard. There is a wildness in their calls that lodges in my heart, unlike any other sound I know. It is the call of wind and wide spaces, of purpose and determination against all odds, of surrender to the annual urge that propels them back home again to breed on the Arctic plain’s vast tundra. Though other waterfowl migrate from wintering grounds to breeding grounds annually, the swans are special. Perhaps it is their grace and beauty on the wing or the sheer distance of their migration that compels me to stop what I am doing and look up. When they pass by in long broken lines, bodies glinting whiter than any snow, voices echoing to each other up so high that sometimes I can’t see them without binoculars I am filled with wonder, sometimes expressed in wide smiles and tears at the same time. I am an onlooker, a bystander allowed to observe and learn, but not to take part. I am an earthbound creature and they are not and so I watch with longing as they pass over, wave after wave on their way to a place I may well never get to see.
It is likely that the swans will pass over you for a few more days. If so, when you hear a distant sound like a muffled horn playing the same one note over and over… or when you catch a glimpse of white, glinting in the sun against a bright blue sky, stop what you are doing and look up and listen. The moment may be as close as you will ever come to the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, but if you can imagine the tundra filled with swans breeding and raising a new generation, you will never think of it in the same way again. You will recognize it as the natural home of these wondrous creatures and pray that it will remain so forever and ever.
Wednesday, February 15, 2012
At first glance, the marsh looks almost barren in wintertime, particularly at low tide. Broken cattail remains dot the mud and the bare branches of silky dogwood and buttonbush appear as frozen as the ice that clings to the Potomac River shoreline. As I braced myself against the biting wind, the bright February sunlight did little to warm me and I wondered yet again how the waterfowl swimming and feeding just beyond the ice can live, and even thrive, in the cold.
The boardwalk runs between the river and the marsh, at the intersection of the two ecosystems, and offers abundant opportunity to observe the life of both. There were not many ducks in the marsh but on the river they were feeding, splashing and calling with abandon. Furthest out were the diving ducks- the common mergansers, hooded mergansers, American widgeons and buffleheads and for the most part, each species swam alone, not mingling with others not of its own kind. Closer in to shore were the dabbling ducks, puddle ducks as they are sometimes called, the mallards and black ducks whose bottoms we often see as they tip their heads underwater to feed. This area of the Potomac is rich in the aquatic plant life, fish and crustaceans that sustain the waterfowl who make this area their winter home and the boardwalk is an excellent vantage point from which to learn more about them all.
Though I enjoy watching waterfowl, my attention turned to the bald eagle pair perched on a large sycamore nearby. The female should be laying her first egg any day now and, though I think I know which nest they will adopt, I won’t be sure until she is sitting still for a while. I have come to quietly watch and wait and, perhaps, to discover.
Absorbed in the eagles, I suddenly became aware other movement I hadn’t noticed before. The dabbling ducks were on the move from the river into the marsh. At first just a few pairs of mallards flew over but shortly thereafter groups of eight and ten followed, wings whistling softly as they passed over my head and disappeared into the channels between the cattails. Within a short time, the two hundred mallards and black ducks who had been on the river had flown into the marsh and the seemingly lifeless wetland was alive with sound and splashing and what seemed like joy at arriving home again. I puzzled about their mini-migration for a while and finally realized that it had to do with tidal ebb and flow. The tide was low when I had first arrived and the marsh was drained. While I had been focusing on waterfowl and eagles, however, the river was slowly and steadily streaming in once again and at some definitive moment the marsh held enough water for the ducks to resume maneuvering and feeding in their favored setting.
Once again I was reminded that there is always, always something new to be learned when venturing outside, whether we live on the border of wild land or in a suburban community. No matter where we are, we have daily opportunities to expand our understanding of the natural world just by opening our eyes and minds. If taken, those opportunities will also bring a renewed sense of the joy of discovering something that we hadn’t known or noticed before. What will the day bring to you? Keep your eyes open and senses attuned and find out. At the end of the day, you will feel richer for what you have learned.
Thursday, February 9, 2012
The old beech tree stands in a stony pull off area in front of the farm manager’s office, just off the farm road. Decades ago her office may have been a creamery, judging by the cream separators bolted to the floor. Now the old machines stand as witnesses to the past, to the former ways and means of a family dairy in times gone by. The tree may have been a sapling then, planted intentionally or perhaps the offspring of one of the many beeches that dot the woodlands and pastures here. Many of those ancient trees have fallen or are filled with decay but they are older than this tree. This tree may well be their progeny and have many years left to live and bear beechnuts.
I think of this tree as female. She is strong and sturdy of trunk, with arms that grow horizontally and then bend down, as if reaching to welcome all who come near. Though her lower limbs are thick and burly, her outermost twigs are as fine as lace and dance in the slightest breeze. How she can stand so strong puzzles me, given the many cars that have driven over her roots day in and day out for these many long years. The entrance to the barnyard would not be the same without her.
This has been prolific year for beechnuts in most of the eastern states and reports coming from as far north as New Hampshire and as far south as Georgia report an outstanding beech nut crop. Our barnyard beech tree is no exception. Wave after wave of birds have been eating from her for months, beginning back when her bronzed leaves hid her tiny, spiny nuts. At times, mature and immature red-headed woodpeckers chatter and swoop in a seemingly non-stop parade, plucking nuts and flying elsewhere to open them. Blue jays and downy woodpeckers also frequent her branches and cardinals, juncos, and white-throated sparrows pick through the rocks beneath, foraging and finding nuts whose shells have already opened. Squirrels are ever-present and when the goats are fortunate enough to break out of the pasture, it is to the beech nuts that they head.
Wherever I look into the trees on this farm I see abundance…food for birds and mammals almost without end. Come spring, these trees’ blossoms will provide the vital early nectar and pollen for our native pollinators and draw insects that will become food for our returning warblers, thrushes, orioles and other neo-tropical migrants. Those insects will pollinate the flowers that will become next autumn’s nuts and berries and the cycle of abundance will begin once again. Just as I should be and, I pray, will be for many seasons to come.
Saturday, February 4, 2012
It was drizzling this evening as I headed down to the barnyard. The sky was grey and dusk was early and most of the chickens had decided that staying indoors and dry was preferable to being outdoors and wet and they didn’t seem to mind being closed in a tad earlier than usual. Our laying flock includes several breeds - Red Stars, Black Stars, White Rocks and Barred Rocks laying brown eggs of various shades, Leghorns laying white eggs and, Americanas laying lovely eggs of blues and greens. We also have a flock of young Red Star pullets that will begin laying in three months, perhaps around Easter…New eggs for Easter…makes me smile to think about it. The chickens are housed in four coops built long ago, having sheltered literally dozens of generations of laying hens who have roamed the chicken yards, shaded by sycamores and sweet gum trees. Now our flocks roost on the old roosts and lay their eggs in the old nest boxes and who is to say how many future generations will do the same.
As is often the case on weekends, the farm was quiet and this evening I was alone with the animals- a rich, sweet, peaceful aloneness in which everything felt exactly right, exactly as it ought to be. As I made my way into the barnyard, the animals were waiting for me. The watch-geese, I call them, have the loudest voices on the farm and sounded a raucous alarm that the evening routine was about to begin…someone has to do it, I suppose, and they have taken the important responsibility to heart. I gave the donkey his hay in the pasture, allowing the geese and I to scoot into their pen at the back of his stall. I closed them in for the night as they greedily gobbled up their corn and then called to the turkey who was already on his way to his own quarters. Eager for his ration of wheat, corn and chicken feed, he unhesitatingly marched right in and I latched the latch and left him happily pecking his way through dinner.
It was time for milking and I gathered the washing solution and washcloth and the milk pail and headed in to the cows, already in place and munching blissfully on fragrant alfalfa hay. I breathed in deeply and smiled. Though the world is filled with many wonderful scents, I don’t think there are any finer than that of warm cows and good hay and here were both together, just as it should be. I looked around the small old milking barn, wondering how many cows had previously stood in the stalls that are now occupied by our cows, how many gallons of milk had how many hands milked into shiny metal pails just as I was doing and others will do after me.
There is a rhythm to life that I was unable to recognize or appreciate when I was younger. I have come to realize that each stage of our lives has its own joys and sorrows, its own challenges and fulfillment and at any given time we are unlikely to know in advance what the next stage will bring. As it turns out, this stage is offering a life that I used to dream about living, though never seriously imagined I would. I am deeply grateful for the time and the role I have been granted here, for as long as it is mine to live it and pray that my presence will bless and encourage others as much as I am blessed by what I have been given.
It has been almost two years since writing…two years since moving from my Pennsylvania home and yard, from the creatures who lived there and from family and old friends. In my last post I looked back at the life I had lived and wondered in print about what was to come and what I would find. It was an anxious time of facing the unknown with no idea how life would unfold.
Today I live in the modest farm manager’s house on an old farm perched high above the Potomac River, surrounded by woodlands, wetlands and fields. The view from my window is framed by two large red cedars and beyond them, a sea of trees-myriad oaks, beech, tulip poplar, American holly and pawpaw standing as sentinels, as guardians of this land. Many of them were here long before this farm was carved from the rocky landscape and will live on long after I am gone.
The house and farm were built in the 1920’s and though now an educational center, the farm has been worked for generations. I am not the farm manager. I am the gardener for our half-acre children’s garden, caretaker of our flock of laying hens and multi-purpose farm helper. This evening I’ll collect the eggs and close our chickens in for the night, milk our cows, feed our geese, turkey and donkey, set out hay for the goats and sheep and bid everyone a good night and pleasant dreams before climbing back up the hill to our house.
God has granted me a rich and satisfying life in this place, a wholly unexpected opportunity to experience that which, until now, I have only read about. I am blessed to arise each morning, not knowing what the day will bring, but knowing I will be outdoors in the wild and domestic landscapes and among the life that both support. A verse from a favorite hymn, Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, rings through my mind repeatedly as I walk these old farm roads. “Hither to Thy love has blessed me; Thou has brought me to this place. And I know Thy hand will bring me safely home by Thy good grace.”
It is with thanksgiving that I once again begin chronicling my life, intimately intertwined with the Creator and His land and creatures and I hope the stories will bless those who read as well.