Friday, August 29, 2008

Woodchuck and Other Critters

The Woodchuck

While working in the yard one evening earlier this summer I noticed this guy up a tree in the front yard. I think the dog had scared him up there. Though my old dog is not the type to sit uselessly at the base of a tree barking hysterically, this creature was very aware of the dog and remained absolutely motionless. I had time to get my camera. I needed photos for identification purposes because I had no idea what this creature was.

This photo is not the best. The creature's head is at the top, his eye a point of light. He has a little bushy, curly tail, and impressive front claws.

As soon as I could, I researched the internet for Kansas mammals. Thanks to information on a great web site, I determined it was a woodchuck. I was born and raised in Kansas but I did not know woodchucks lived in Kansas. Two of my hunter friends did not believe I had seen a woodchuck, either. After I provided my photos, they each researched and came to the same conclusion. I was not the only bonafide Kansan surprised by this creature.

All I know about woodchucks I learned on this web site:

They are the largest member of the squirrel family in Kansas, growing up to two feet long and weighing as much as twelve pounds. They live in dens in the ground, but can climb trees quite easily. They are vegetarians and they hibernate. This one likely lives close to my house, along the creek.

I am delighted that I share my little corner of the world with critters like this guy. He goes about his life and I go about mine. If he had never gone up that tree, I would most likely have never seen him and never learned woodchucks live in eastern Kansas.

The time I have been here at Spirit Creek, I have seen many animals: deer, fox, coyote, bobcat, several types of hawks, kestrels, eagles, wild turkey, prairie chickens, muskrat, prairie voles, a variety of snakes, insects, butterflies, spiders of unimaginable variety, and a list of birds too long to write here. I count each sighting as a gift. I am always amazed that despite our best efforts otherwise, these creatures have managed to live alongside humans.

The holy grail of wildlife sightings for Kansans is a mountain lion. Just about everyone I know in Kansas knows someone-who-knows-someone who has spotted a mountain lion. Officially, there are no mountain lions in Kansas but there is an enduring "urban legend" that wildlife officials released mountain lions at various places around the state several years ago. Each time I hear the release story, it is always just two people removed from whomever is telling the story.

Now, I do not know about the secret release of mountain lions, but I do believe some of the people who have told me personally they have spotted a mountain lion. My neighbor said he saw one crossing the road about two miles from here. I believe him. I do not believe the story of a mountain lion having her kits under a junked car in Willard, Kansas, though.

I hope to see a wild cougar some day, but from far, far away. If my good old dog is with me, I will be perfectly safe. No body messes with the Duke - not even woodchucks.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Rain Sky

It is hard to photograph space and distance. The views of Kansas are difficult to capture in order to convey the scale of sky and the depth of view.

There is still a bit of room in Kansas. There is space to breathe and live a distance from your neighbor in peace.

These are no grand vistas of Wyoming, nor majestic crown of Colorado mountains. What Kansas gives you is sky - three hundred sixty degrees of windblown, ever changing, immediate sky.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Spirit Creek

I live next to a little spring fed creek that I christened Spirit Creek. On modern maps, it has no name. In an antique book store in Topeka, I found an old township map that shows it was once named Spring Creek.

It is normally a beautiful clear water stream. It loops around my house and there are several places where the water flows over rocky shallows with a musical murmur. When it rains, it rises in a muddy hurry. When it downpours, it boils into an angry, dangerous current that pulls down trees, erodes the banks, and scours the streambed clean. Before I moved here, it carried an eight passenger stationwagon about a mile downstream.

In the time I have lived here, Spirit Creek only stopped flowing once. It dried up into large pools, and exposed the bedrock and gritty sand of its channel. I hiked upstream in the empty bed and was surprised at the number of small springs and seeps that were trickling water.

It was during this hike that I discovered at every tiny seep or trickle of water, hundreds of Monarch butterflies congregated. The sheer numbers amazed me. Some were perched on the moss-covered rocks next to a trickle of water. They roosted closely together on the limbs directly above the fresh water, where it was cool and damp. I could feel the coolness myself as I slowly passed, careful to not disturb them.

Two years of low rainfall coupled with searing heat from early spring until late in the year were the culprits in drying up the creek. It was not replenished with rainfall, and what water there was evaporated in the heat. Somehow the butterflies knew where to find fresh water. It was more than mere chance that so many would have accidentally found the empty stream bed - the entire creek is scarcely four miles long.

I sometimes take Kansas for granted and I take my few acres for granted. I should know better. If I lived here for one hundred years, I would never discover all the secrets.

The creek is also a treasure of fossils. In early spring or on particularly warm winter days, before the insects are out, before the snakes, spiders and other creatures that make sitting next to the water an uncomfortable experience, I love to actually sit in the sand of the creek. With a few minutes of searching, I can find a handful of fossils. I have collected quite an array of fossils, saving the best specimens of each type.

As far as my amateur research has gone, the fossils are quite common and came from the end of the Permian period, in the Paleozoic era. There are neochonetes, which look like delicate clam shells. Crinoids are tiny sections of an ancient plant-like animal with a hole in their center. Some of these are actually five sided. There are tiny ancient clams that are perfectly shaped, often both sides petrified together. There are also millions of tiny stone pieces that look like kernels of wheat called fusulinids. My favorite fossil to find are the bits of bryozoan fossils. They are minute pieces of some creature that looks like modern coral or tiny pieces of tree branches, and delicate bits of lattice that apparently were once fanlike creatures. They are so delicate that I am amazed they survived millions of years for me to find them in the sand now.

The Permian period was between 299 million and 248 million years ago. I have tried to imagine time on that scale and simply can not. At the end of the Permian period, there was a mass extinction of most marine invertebrates. It is the largest extinction of life known to science. Eventually the Permian sea disappeared, the age of dinosaurs came and eventually gave way to the Monarchs and human beings.

As I sit in the ancient sand of the creek, hearing the calming music of water over the limestone rocks, I consider the evolution of the earth. I wonder if in her great dreaming, she ever imagined the sycamore tree sinking its mighty roots deeply into the soil and sand and ancient fossils right at this bend of creek. I wonder if she herself dreamt me into being so I could lay back on the warming banks to watch the silent drift of clouds above this fair place. I wonder if the death of these tiny marine creatures was in the grand plan on the way to dinosaurs, to mammals, to grasses, to bison, to Monarch butterflies, to human beings all along. Or was it a cosmic accident she had not anticipated? And always, I wonder what is to come....

Photos of fossils here.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Horse Persons

When I was a child, there was only one thing in the universe that I ever wanted to do, and that was to ride horses. My father owned a Quarter Horse mare named Lady. She was a fairly small sorrel horse, not particularly beautiful, but she was my soul mate.

My mother told of a day when she missed me from the house. A missing toddler on a farm was very alarming. We lived by a county road, there was large stock tank full of water, and a river nearby. There was also a new mare turned into the corral with Lady and her companion. The two mares were having a difficult time sorting out who was boss. They had been kicking and biting and chasing one another with great malice for sometime, both determined to be dominant.

When Mom realized I was not in the yard either, she went directly to the barn. She found me there with all three horses. I was standing behind Lady with my arms wrapped around her back legs. Mom was faint with fear, afraid to come into the barn to get me, thinking it might trigger the horses to kick one another. Mom used all her powers of persuasion to coax me out of the barn. She said as soon as I was out of there Lady let the new mare have it with both hind hooves - a powerful, vengeful kick.

I have no memory of this. As a mother myself now, I can imagine how scared Mom was when she found me with all three of those horses crammed in the space of a couple of barn stalls. But I know Lady would never have done one thing to harm me. There was a connection between us unlike any I have had with another animal since.

At some point, Lady was moved across the river to my grandfather's farm. If I could have ridden her every day of my life, it would not have been enough. I lived and breathed for the times when I could go to Grandpa's and ride the horses. Most often I could not ride, but when I could, I was free and happy and in control of my own destiny.

All of the grandchildren rode Lady, and she babysat each of them in turn. But she was not an old, broke down, retired cow pony! She was a serious cow horse and knew exactly how to cut a steer out of the herd.

Once I became strong enough to open and close the gates between the pastures, I could ride Lady anywhere I wanted to go. One day I was in a pasture with a herd of cattle, out of sight of the house. I thought I would just see what Lady could do. At the first few turns, she was not sure what was going on. After all, since when did little kids work cattle? About the third cut, she got the message and it was all I could do to hang on! It was impressive the way that horse expertly stayed on that steer and separated him from the herd. It took me a little bit to dissuade her. If things had turned out differently in life, there might have been a time when I could have ridden Lady and helped my Grandpa with the cattle. Lady and I would have been a great team.

There were times when the strife between my parents caused by my father's alcoholism weighed heavily on me. Sometimes as a child, I was burdened by a sadness for my father that I did not understand. Even if I could not ride Lady, if I could just be near to lean against her warm belly, or brush her copper neck, all was right in my world. I think Lady felt the same. She would put her forehead against my heart and sigh, my bony chest hardly large enough for a horse to rest her face against.

I could write a book of my adventures with Lady. My grandparents lived by the Little Walnut River in Butler County, Kansas. There was a field road that followed the high river bank. It was a perfect place to ride a horse. It was a race track, a wagon train trail, a parade route, an Indian hunting ground - whatever my imagination could invent, that was what the dirt road became. I could fly down that road on Lady's broad back, my hands twisted in her mane, my skinny legs strong enough to keep me securely aboard the galloping horse. The hours I spent with Lady were the best times of my childhood. In a certain consideration, those times were the best of my life.

I had dreams of riding Lady as a genuine cowgirl, as a barrel racer, or helping my Grandpa but they never came about. My father died an untimely death. My mother remarried, and my family moved away from my grandparents, my hometown, and away from my beloved Lady. I still saw her a few times but eventually there was that last time. Like so many last times, it passed unnoticed, and I have no conscious memory of the very last time I saw her.

My life was headed toward a period of great unhappiness and chaos. As I made my way through those difficult years, always when the despair was deepest, I would dream of Lady. Often they were nightmares of something being terribly wrong with Lady. Of course, they were warning of what was wrong with me or my life. But somehow those dreams always seemed to give me what I needed to get through one more day, one more disappointment, one more crazy adventure.

Life carried on and I eventually learn how to live more gracefully, successfully putting to rest my demons until at long last, after several false starts, I now have my own little "farm". I have not one, but two, horses. The boss horse person is a sorrel Quarter Horse mare, Ginger. I love her dearly, but she does not necessarily return the favor, at least not the way Lady did. Ginger likes me okay, but she prefers that I not lean on her big belly or wrap my arms around her neck. In fact, she prefers that I not ride her, so I do not.

The other horse person is Annie. She is a mutt of a horse - kind of lumpy in her belly and skinny-necked. Maybe she has some thoroughbred in her. She has an ugly face and forthright personality. She has beautiful big boned legs and she loves to run. I went to the sale barn in Wakarusa one Saturday night when a January snow storm was blowing in from Nebraska, to look about a pregnant appaloosa mare destined for the slaughter house in Texas. But that horse wanted nothing to do with me. I already had an uppity horse. Why would I want two uppity horses? I wanted to look at the others.

When I walked out into the pen my heart ached for all of those unwanted horses destined for the slaughter. There was ugly little Annie, matter-of-factly eating a sprinkling of alfalfa hay with her best friend by her side. There were some beautiful horses in that pen but Annie was friendly and open and curious and unafraid. Someone had combed out her beautiful mane but there was ice frozen in her matted coat. Her hooves were in bad shape - she was potbellied and skinny - and darn it, she was ugly. But she was the one.

So, now I have two horse persons and I am their indentured servant. I do not ride either horse, so they have a fairly boring life. I have to buy hay, throw bales around, shovel horse manure, scrub the water tank, pay for shots and fly spray and a farrier, chop ice all winter long so they can drink, tote 50 pound bags of feed around - and I am OLD! But oh, how much I love having horses in my life again. There might come a day when I decide Ginger is going to let me ride her and go where I want to go, but probably not. It does not matter. Even if she does not like it, I still hug her neck whenever I want.

Post Script: The appaloosa mare and her unborn foal were not sent to slaughter, but purchased from the kill buyers and saved.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Earth Day 2006

Some kind of prairie snake crossing the road.

This is a photo of a common snake I see all the time around Spirit Creek. This snake was fairly small, about three feet in length. Most of those I have seen are big snakes, five feet long and more. They typically try to stay out of human sight.

April 22, 2006 was a day I will remember as a significant snake day for the rest of my life. It was Earth Day. I was working around the barn in the bright sunlight of mid-morning. I was taking a break, leaning against a fence panel of the round pen when I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye. I recoiled when I realized it was one of these snakes, about six feet long. It had come through a wide expanse of short vegetation and was heading directly to the barn, passing within about three feet of me. Not only was that far too close for my comfort, it was unusual behavior for this kind of snake. I normally only know they are around when I catch the movement
of their tails gliding out of sight.

I had a lot of work to do, so rather than run screaming for the house, I kept one eye on that snake at all times. It made a straight line into the open door of the storage side of the little barn. I noticed that it came out and went around the west side of the barn. It made a full circuit in and out and around the barn. I thought it was looking for mice. I minded my own business and let it look for all the mice it wanted, believe me.

I continued to work hard at scrubbing the water tank. About 15 minutes later I was again leaning on the same fence panel, taking another break. (Hey, I am the owner and general manager of this outfit. I can take a break whenever I want.) It was deja vu! In the same spot, another snake was quickly and purposefully crossing the round pen, following the same path. This one was a bit smaller. It went directly into the open door of the storage side of the barn, exactly as the first snake had.

Now there was approximately eleven feet of living, slithering snake within a few feet of me!

For some reason, the second snake's last six inches of tail remained draped over the door jamb. It was a windy day, and I thought perhaps the door had closed partway over the snake's body and it was stuck. Damn. Even a snake does not deserve to be slammed in a door.
Gathering all my courage, I took the manure fork and cautiously walked toward the open door.

Holding the fork as far forward from my body as I possibly could, I tried to push the door all the way open. I was holding the fork with the fewest fingers I could manage because this grip allowed me to stay as far away as possible. I was not able to move the door. I choked up on the handle a bit, gingerly stepped forward and pushed the door again. Something was blocking that door and I thought it was the snake's body.

I was not happy. I was going to have a seriously injured snake to extract from under the door. I had no idea how I was going to manage handling a six foot snake. Once I did get it out, if it was terribly injured, what could I possibly be able to do for it? I would have to call a nature rehab center. Hopefully, they would come to my barn and I would not have to take the snake to them... My mind was racing.

Finally, I gathered my courage and forced myself to get close enough to the door to see what was blocking it. As I carefully peered over the jamb, I practically passed out! BOTH snakes were beneath the door, but they were not caught. They love... I dropped the manure fork and backed away.

"That is not something you see every day," I said to the horse.

As I returned to scrubbing the water tank, I realized that only 'love' would make the snakes brave enough to so boldly travel the short grass, exposed to all their enemies, and pass so closely to a human being. They ignored the horse, as well. It was impressive how the first snake had been thoroughly searching for its mate, and how they unerringly found one another.

I finished up the tank and refilled it with fresh water. When I thought to look again, both snakes were gone. Even though I do not particularly like snakes, the whole incident was a strange and wonderful gift from the earth to me that day. This is a great web site with good photos of all the snakes in Kansas.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Uncle Rand'

My Little Brother

This is a picture of my little brother, Randy. He was born just 2 weeks and 2 days short of being two full years younger than me. He was the cutest little boy you ever saw in your life, with shiny light brown hair and long black eye lashes. He was always quiet and trusting, easily led into mischief by a far more devious older sister.

I took this photo the day he came to help me with my new Harley. I bought the bike from a retired public servant, either a fireman or a sheriff - memory fails. It had forward controls installed on it, and I was afraid I would not be able to handle riding a strange new bike and manage the forward controls, too. (Forward controls are the rear brake control and the shifter moved far forward on the bike, so a person with long legs can sit more comfortably when they ride.) Also, Rand' is a great mechanic, so he would be able to hear or spot anything wrong with the bike. He came over 200 miles (one way) to help me just because I asked.

Randy has always known what he wanted to do in life. He always wanted to be a mechanic, and he is a good one. He has worked on cars, trucks, motorcycles and small engines. For most of his adult life he has worked on the big machines, caterpillars and road graders and earth movers. He has box end wrenches in his toolbox that are so huge I can hardly pick them up. He was born broad shouldered and strong as an ox, and that strength has never failed him.

He grew up and joined the Navy during the Vietnam war. When he returned home, he bought a Shelby Mustang someone had turned into a hobby stock race car. With his own money and doing his own work, he raced on the dirt tracks in northern Kansas. He was number 88. I happened to be in the pits the night of his maiden race. About the third lap, the drive shaft broke and stabbed into the dirt track, lifting the back of the car off the ground! As my contribution to his racing career, I paid for the drive shaft to be welded that week. The drive shaft never broke again.

I also painted Mustang Sally on the hood. I used a centerfold from an old Playboy magazine as the model, and painted in a big racing slick at her feet. I put all my love and thoughts of protection into that painting, so my brother would be safe when he was out there with those other maniacs racing in the dust. When Number 88 was sold, my brother cut Mustang Sally out of the hood and she hangs in his garage, still sexy in her high heels and big mane of brown hair.

It was fun going to the races with him, hauling that old jalopy around in the hot summer nights, drinking cold beer after the races. We commiserated with him when he broke down or crashed or was edged over the high bank by an aggressive driver. When he would place, we were all ecstatic, as if he had won the Indianapolis 500. Our baby brother, Mark, was in on this racing venture as well. But it was Rand's idea, his money, his mechanic work, his courage to get out there and drive. Mark and I were just enthusiastic supporters and beer drinkers.

My brother is the kind of guy who would give you the shirt off his back. He's too nice, always willing to take second best, or second place, or do without so someone else can do with. Sometimes it is hard to see how that kind of behavior brings its own reward. Every so often, it does reward my humble brother.

One day at a convenience store close to where he works, Rand' was in line behind some guy who wanted to buy a scratch-off lottery ticket. The clerk tried to sell a ticket that had already been torn from the roll. The guy refused that ticket, a bit rudely maybe, and demanded the next one from the roll. My brother spoke up and said he would buy the loose ticket. That ticket turned out to be a $20,000 winner. Yep, and ol' Rand rode that $20,000 around in the form of a new Harley for about 12 years!

He's a pretty good guy, all told.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Medicine Wheel

Medicine Wheel in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming

It will be hard to write about the Medicine Wheel without talking about my sister Patti Massell. She died in the prime of life, unexpectedly taken from her family and all who also loved her.

She was a pejutawin, a medicine woman. She was given a powerful healing ceremony and she made it available to anyone who asked. I personally know people whose doctors had told them to get their affairs in order - modern medicine could do no more for them. Most of them were dying from a combination of cancer and chemo treatments. They came to Patti at death's door, but today almost all are alive and healthy.

Leonard McKinney first introduced Patti and I at the Veteran's powwow in Wichita, Kansas. Some months later, we met again and it was as if we had known one another our entire lives. We quite casually became instant best friends.

Several years went by before we realized she was born at the summer solstice, and I was born at the winter solstice. It was only one intriguing synchronicity of many in our lives. Patti once said "It's as if our lives have been on parallel paths, and then our paths crossed." She adopted me as her sister, an old Native American way of honoring someone.  Aside from my children, it meant more to me than any other thing in my entire life at the time.

Writing about Patti is a book in itself. Much of what could be written is too sacred for the internet. I respectfully and humbly share that I had the honor to have been part of a ceremony with Patti June 20, 2001 at the Medicine Wheel. Her youngest son, my son, and another friend were there, too. Patti's elderly uncle stayed at the ranger station, waiting for us to come down from the Medicine Wheel.

I went up there as my old self and came down changed. Spirit dealt forcefully with me that day. I still do not understand all that happened, all that Spirit was trying to show me. It was a transformation that will take the rest of my life to unfold.

The Medicine Wheel figured in my life long before I knew Patti Massell. It was in the early spring of 1994 when I took my son and daughter on our first genuine family vacation. We went to Yellowstone. It was something I had so much wanted to do for my children but never could afford. I planned the trip through the Big Horn Mountains specifically to visit the Medicine Wheel. Once there, a sign warned of a long hike to the actual site. I was not physically capable of such a hike at that altitude and I was deeply disappointed. I made a silent vow to come back.

Years went by but my intent to return to the Big Horn Mountains never wavered. I felt as if a perfect time would present itself for the trip, but I could never have guessed the circumstances of my return in 2001. It worked out that Patti and I could go at the same time. We met there and camped on the day before her birthday.  That is how magical life sometimes is.

Friday, August 1, 2008

The View East

The same view in three seasons.
The Rising of the Light

There is no imagining the new vista revealed with the rise of any given dawn. Each sunrise more I am granted, my heart moves outward, touching every blade of grass and dew drop and snow flake and whisper of wind through the limbs in the sheltering trees.

My human heart pulses within the great maternal breast of the earth and thereafter belongs to the rhythm of seasons. Above the line of earth rises the moon,
the sun's great shafts of light rushing inward
and I effortlessly witness the mystery.

I do not know how I came to be - I do not know my creator, nor the creator of the shining earth, nor understand what substance time may be. While I exist, I celebrate the rising of the light, the rising of the light.