Along the River

I just came in from the barn where I spent a couple of hours tidying, feeding, brushing, mucking, hauling. I derive so much pleasure in taking care of the animals and making their stalls clean and cozy. Having goats in my life and the time to play with them is a delight. They love it when I roll bales of hay and bags of shavings down the stairs into the tack room. Mama, especially, rears her head and flicks her tail and flaps her big ears at me, an overture to play. Then she stands on her hind legs and feigns to butt me. I pretend to rear up too and dance around which she thinks is pretty funny. Baby, meanwhile does his utmost to rip open the shavings bag. He paws and tears at it with his scurs then looks to me for a scolding. He jumps onto the unopened bales of hay and stands there, so proud he can now accomplish being up so high. Until now, the meningeal worm infection had prevented him jumping on things, his rear legs were just too weak and his balance not great. Standing on the hay bale is a “trick” he does. He is rewarded by a nice grooming with a soft brush.

I think the goats like the sound their neat hooves make when they clop along on wood. When I take them for walks in the forest, they spend an inordinate amount of time on the bridge, walking and trotting back and forth, stopping to look down at the water below. In the grain room, which has no shavings on the floor, they rear at each other and pretend to butt heads. They land at exactly the same time making a bright, percussive sound with their four hooves. I stop my work and watch the dance which may last for several minutes. Recently I put down some sand and then laid a walkway of boards across the muddy paddock so that I could push the wheelbarrow more easily. The goats love to pace this little boardwalk, I think they like the sound. I hear their hoof falls even when I am working a little way off in the garden. My ambition is to enlarge their paddock next year and make some more climbing things for them. When I leave after morning or evening chores, they bawl and carry on, calling to me to come back! This nearly breaks my heart. If baby could sleep in bed with me, he happily would.

It has been snowing since early morning. The temperature hovers around freezing and there is no wind. The flakes are big and coming down steadily. The day holds the softness and silence of the first real snow. The world holds its breath. It seems fitting that today, after I filled the goat stall with a deep bed of hay, and the common stall with fresh shavings, cleaned the water barrel and lugged bucket after bucket of fresh, warm water (this is the first day that the hose has frozen solid and so the water carrying begins), piled soft hay around the perimeter of both stalls, it seems fitting that today, which feels very solstice-like, was the day that the goats discovered that they love peppermint candy!

Of course William the pony is an old hand in the business of peppermint love. His ears perk at the sound of the plastic wrapper crinkling when I unwrap a piece. Even if he doesn’t want to get caught and brushed, he cannot resist the temptation of a peppermint. I enjoy his enjoyment and sound of the hard candy shattering between his molars, each time I feed him one, I remember what our big warmblood mare, Panga would do with peppermint: she would suck on it the way a person might, and stick her tongue out of her mouth just a little bit as she sucked. This is the time of the year when one wants to feed peppermints and carrots to the barn creatures, leave small treats out for the barn mice next to a saucer of warm water, hang cranberry strings in the woods for the squirrels and birds. Trickle bird seed down a chipmunk hole.

I came in for lunch but will go back out soon into the woods and see what it feels like there. The beaver families should be safely ensconced in their lodges, I know that they have been busy cutting saplings and storing food. It has been a halcyon year for beech nuts and acorns, fattening the bears, chipmunks, turkeys, grouse and deer. The bluejays have never looked so sleek and plump. Fallen logs in the forest are covered with tiny sit sites marked by semicircular piles of nutshell fragments. I look out at the world from my own fire- warmed kitchen; some smallish, fox sized animal had just caught my eye as it disappeared around the corner of the barn. I watch my neighbor’s daughter Amber, glide off on skis across their field. She is accompanied by two tail wagging dogs.

As winter approaches I take note of how my own world contracts. I stay mostly in the stove warmed kitchen now, and must put on a coat in order to play the piano in the living room. My bed is piled with extra blankets and I keep my socks on as I crawl in to sleep. I keep a pot of water with fresh sage and orange peel on the wood stove and cook thick root and bean filled soups and stews. My old cat Clover sleeps the end of her life away in the chair by the fire that is hers. I wonder what she dreams and think of her lucky life. With me for 20 years now, she has never missed a meal.

In mid December, we ( the animals and I) enter a hibernation of sorts. The border between outside and inside hardens. Boots must be warmed, mittens dried, one cannot dash out on a whim. Beds must be deep, clean and warm. I keep a close eye on the woodpile, figure the weeks and months, light the other stove in the main part of the house only on special occasions. The world outside hides its secrets in hollow trees and stone walls beneath a blanket of snow. Grouse make snow caves.

So out I go on the day’s woodland adventure. The world is mostly white now, no longer showing glimpses of purply brown and green, each and every twig and branch is edged in white, still-standing sunflowers wear peaked snow caps, the mountain on the other side of Fuller brook is obscured by a curtain of white. The snow is coming down hard.


Another beautiful morning. I am reading Oliver Sach’s book called Gratitude, and I did that this morning in bed and thanked him for his wise and kind words. He found it hard to part with life, its intensity never dulled for him even as he died. This as the blue came sailing in the windows and the clouds lit up in the east. Clearing a strange dream from my mind as I read and watched the day approach.

Yesterday was a day I took care of eight year old Maple, but I think we should say that she took care of me. Maple is a wonderful, patient teacher, able, like Amaru, to spot things I easily miss, but in her case, the “things” are mostly plants and fungi  although we did have a conversation about the ethics of keeping dinoflagellates in captivity…Maple shows me the world in a patient and articulate way. She has an eye for detail. Now I feel I really can tell the difference between false and true turkey tails. We debated whether a plant was indeed rattlesnake plantain. I love that she is respectful of picking, “This looks like it’s about to spore, let’s leave it.” One of best parts of our walk was discovering a fallen tree, moss covered, hollow and filled with passage ways, entrances and exits, perching spots where beech nuts and acorn left overs allowed us to imagine recent feasts. We rolled a few acorns down into the dens, and Maple spoke to the chipmunks (who we decided lived there), warning them to stay safe and apologizing for the disturbance we had caused. We also decorated the log with fallen hemlock boughs (maybe nipped from the tree by a porcupine) in honor of the season.
We also discussed how foolish it is for some people not to believe in fairies.

How nice to take such a walk with a child and view the world as fresh and so alive. Maple might spot a tree ear far up on a birch, and grab my hand and run to it. We spotted partridge berries and ate some, we collected birch twigs for the rabbits and guinea pigs and cached them, leaving behind trail markers so that we could pick them up on the way back. On the way back, we met Jimmy and Tyco, putting up the trail cam. Maple asked sternly if he had removed any trail markers from the path and he looked guilty.

We were out for at least 2 hours in the cold and walked a long, zig zagged way, skipping sometimes, running, racing, stopping, singing, sometimes holding mittened hands, sometimes adventuring off on our own. Chatting and quiet, warning off the invisible hunters, whispering so they could not hear our talk of animals. At the confluence, (which is not really that but a long island which splits Fuller’s Brook into two for a bit) we clambered around on the boulders, seeking out the garnet studded schist and saving the small stones. They look like little loaves of petrified raisin-pumpernickel bread. In the light the raisins sparkle deed red.

Although she was unfamiliar of the trail, Maple remembered all of our hiding spots and special places on the way back. And although we were tired, hungry and cold, she simply had to stop at the beaver pond and break off delicate sheets of ice and toss them off onto the frozen surface, watch them tinkle, shatter and skid.

Crossing Paths

Last night a cat crossed my path.

I had taken the wrong turn and was lost somewhere in the middle of Berkshire County, driving through an unfamiliar river valley:

The mountains are black against a misty moon filled sky. The car’s gas gauge veers toward empty.
Directional instincts most always mislead me so I know that I am more likely to be heading in the wrong direction as the right. Above the steep valley walls, the moon divulges little hint of east or west. Somehow I trust that the way home will be revealed. And if not, I tell myself, I can always stop and wake some sleeping family and ask them where I am. I can even sleep in my car, covering myself with the dog’s blanket from the backseat.

The road gets smaller and more cobbley. I follow a sharp right curve across a narrow stone bridge then up a hill and into a winding town. Up ahead a white cat hurries across the road. I recognize it as a cat by her manner of motion: body and head ride still upon a rapid whir of legs; and her color: there are no white wild animals in this part of New England at this time of the year. From a distance, the cat looks like a tiny windup toy. As I approach, I expect her to speed to a trot or a leaping gallop, but she does not.

Closer up this cat is lithe, small and scruffy. She moves with deliberation, heading towards a specific place with a particular goal in mind. From her body type and attitude, I guess that she is connected to a human family that allows her to wander out into this moon filled night. Unlike myself, she is most certainly not lost.

If a black cat is bad luck then what is a white cat? What luck does a scruffy white cat hold for the passing traveler? Is she a talisman for my travels? Does scruffiness detract from luck? As I head up the mountain and out of town, my mind wanders from thoughts of this particular cat and her nighttime adventures to human beliefs regarding black and white, bad and good magic, and the prejudice that our own culture holds against the dark.

Darkness of depth, unknowable things, mystery, safe hiding places, a space for dreams. Cracks in a wall, a tunnel beneath the ground. Things you cannot see. Another way of seeing things, or feeling them: an alternative spinning of a story. What is it like to have whiskers, hear ultrasound, have magnetic sight, what if you were able to hear a hurricane from a hundred miles away? Or feel a mouse sneeze from behind a door? Darkness, a path from one world into another. The resetting of an inner clock.

What is path crossing anyway? Whose path is it? Does the path crossing occur before or after one has gone by? Did I cross the cat’s path or did she cross mine?

It is a path crossing, boundary blurring time of the year. The sun is at a slant, the shadows are long and a day without clouds flashes with sudden brevity. Meanderings, wanderings, byways, lost ways. Low clouds drift by in the dying day, columns of mist float down the river like ghostly giants. Losing the trail. Losing one’s way. Rustling grass, skittering leaves.  A scratching in the wall. A knocking on the side of the house. Feeling your way in the dark. Hiding things. Stashing things. Forgetting where you put the things you’ve piled against winter’s cold.

Do we leave a trail of something behind us, a piece of ourselves behind as we zip or crawl, swim, run, wander, drift or fly through this world?  The tail of a meteor, the track of a bear. Thunder reports the collisions of clouds. An expanding ripple, the beaver’s dive. Water laps against the shore. Evidence of things no longer present; palpable memories that deepen and elucidate the mystery of time and space.

The cat who crossed my path dropped one white hair in the alleyway as she headed home. A deer mouse wove that hair into her winter nest hidden beneath a leaf filled drain by the crumbling brick wall of a house on East Main Street in a town whose name I do not know.

What does the moon leave behind as she passes through the night sky? A haze of excited photons or something more?

I did eventually find my way home, my car on empty. I encountered no other creatures, human or non. Fell into bed and read about moss until I slept. Woke up at 1 on a pile of pillows and turned off the light. Mosses do not have roots. They depend upon a micro layer of water to coat their leaves. Without this minuscule aquatic blanket the moss becomes dormant. It sleeps. Of what do mosses dream? They dream of water, of course, says Robin Wall Kimmerer, the author of the book Gathering Moss.

Although the barred owls have stopped their hooting, the coy-wolves have been howling through the night so the dark is full of energy and sound, some of it alarming, all of it strange and supercharged with wild power. My cat rises up on the bed when she hears them. Tail bushed, hair up, she stares at the window, and her growl comes out as a low hum.  Zora my dog presses close and silent against my body. There is a skittering in the wall of my bedroom. It is a productive rustling, coming from someone bigger than a mouse. I welcome the company as I stir in my bed.

The crickets have fallen silent now and the tree frogs too. It is finally too cold for them. Last week’s torrential rains washed out the uppermost beaver dam. Yet again, as is always the case in beaver territory, the world of land and water has changed dramatically. The upper pond has drained, upstream the brook is now free flowing. Shores of sand and mud  are exposed. Islands emerge that have previously been under water, drowning trees are given a chance to live. Observing this rapidly evolving topography is like watching a time lapse movie in miniature of epochal geographic change. The beaver lodge is revealed to its base and will have to be abandoned, not a welcome prospect for a beaver living at the edge of winter.

Yesterday I found a nice fresh series of bear tracks on the sand by the stream. The great blue heron has forsaken my field for this newly revealed riparian environment. I go on my daily run along the stream.  A sudden flash of blue startles me as this giant bird flies up with a loud flapping. Navigating the trees with grace, she flies downstream. Low along the water, she sets down her long legs, folds her wings and settles to hunt a little further on. At dusk the wood ducks call and haloo in their pipey voices. The sunsets trend towards red, orange and crimson. The dark falls faster and more absolutely with each day. The woods are mostly bare now, save the oaks and beeches which continue their fade from green to gold. The moss by the path absorbs the cold mist that now cloaks our valley. It is at its most green.

The rushing sound of the river travels from across the road and penetrates the silence of the house.


All-Hallows’ Summer

I’m sitting on the porch. It is increasingly blustery. I am reading and, at the same time watching a great blue heron in my field. They (she or he?) are mostly standing very still. An occasional shake of the head, a turning, an opening and closing of the bill, a stretching or contraction of the sigmoidal neck. I watch through my binoculars: long, seemingly fragile and awkward legs which allow this bird to wade through water or tall grass, and which, when the bird is aloft, seem to be carried along as an afterthought as an airplane might pull up its landing gear. The royal cascade of grey feathers from throat to chest, the cape-like hood of muscular wings. A bright yellow eye in the middle of a black stripe. A stylish cap of feathers shooting backwards from a streamlined head.

The clouds are moving so fast and so high that shadows projected from the east  pass over the field and woods like a time lapse video. There is an illusion of shape shifting as the light changes, illuminating valleys, hummocks and trees. When the sun hits the heron, she gleams.

The old cherry in the field underneath which Daffodil is buried (I planted a magnificent aster donated by my neighbor on her grave this week) is clapping the last of its golden leaves. The forest beyond the beaver ponds is warmed by oranges, scarlets, pinks, and yellowing greens.

Animals like the heron that are born to wait: what do they think as they stand so still and bide their time for so long? All the while, maintaining  the poise and concentration that is needed to detect a scurried movement, a glimmer of fish? Be so still and quiet for so long without their mind wandering? Or does it? It is  difficult to watch and wait alongside this creature. So I am a part timer, a partial observer:  I write, or read, and  think of other things. I look up to find my subject has moved, now there is only a straight neck, poking up high above the shoulder deep field grass, her head cocks one way and then the other. Is she listening?

Yesterday Atalanta found five year old Itzel standing stock still in the middle of the kitchen, his eyes were closed. She left him to himself until he opened his eyes and began to move about. What were you doing? she asked. “I was feeling what it is like to be dead. Now I know.” He has been talking about wanting to know what it is like to die but without the staying dead part.

The crickets are still singing but their song is less a symphony, more a series of quiet songs. Last night in Easthampton the katydids still sang at dusk. The children and I noticed bats at sunset, and a long line of geese high in the sky just after the sky turned a soft scarlet gold.

A chickadee has landed on a branch just above my head. She is singing her “who are you” song. Short musical trills. I have seen several black squirrels over the last few days, and last evening, a porcupine who, with a  typically stilted, deliberate gait, hackles partially raised, headed off into the woods as I stopped to shoo her from the road.

I will avoid the term Indian Summer.  It is of the white man’s making, likely originating sometime in the 1700’s. One account says that it means a fool’s summer, a false or trick summer, a term connected with lying and trickery which may be attributing this  trait to a people.

So I will call it either All-Hallows’ summer or Saint Martin’s summer to describe this unseasonably warm spell that we are feeling in the middle of October. A last taste of the season of warmth.

I just came in from feeding the animals, planting horseradish root and picking the last ripe grapes in the almost dark. Tonight I will wash and simmer them, and save the cooked mash for making grape jelly later in the week.

The clouds are gathering, dark and piled up.  the wind is gusting and racing around the house and barn, shushing through dry leaves and rattling the metal roof of the barn. A unsettlingly warm wind that smells of the ocean and rotting grapes. Next to me the screen door opens with a slow creak then slams shut. It does this again and again. In a moment I will take my little flashlight and venture out into the evening to pick kale for my dinner. The season of eating out of the garden is likely over as of tonight. The tomato leaves hang like  limp rags, the sunflowers lean at acute angles, joining to form geometric shapes with their huge stalks. In the collapsing, shredded foliage of the garden, 5 big orange pumpkins are revealed. They glow in the last light.

My neighbors brought me a basket of succulents, cutting from burro’s tails and others. I spent the last of the day arranging them in pots. They are linear, vine-y plants that grow in spirals, loops and cascades.  In one pot I fashioned a sort of living mandala with them. If they take root, they will be a Christmas present for Atalanta (I neglected to water her burro’s tail plant last year and it died). The others I put into a big pot where I had in the summer repotted some cacti. They will be elegant there. I also repotted 2 little hem stitch begonias. Begonias seem to like this house. Those particular plants were from a dear friend of my mother’s who died many decades ago, way before my mother’s own death.  But these long lived plants remain diminutive as they thrive. Sometimes they shoot up shy pink blossoms. My other begonia which has almost died numerous times, was from my mother. This year, I retrieved the little table upon which it used to sit  when I was a child. It may have felt the familiarity of place because now it is thriving! It sits by a southern window and this past spring it gave me two months of fabulous flowers.