Sunday, January 31, 2010

A Splendid Idea

Gayfeather blooming on a steep hillside.

Right now high summer seems like the best idea the world ever produced. The sun warmed grasses of the prairie have their own scent. The soil softens and warms, and all manner of wild flower bloom throughout the spring, summer and fall. There are the beautiful tall grasses, too.

Thunderstorms, t shirts, motorcycles, and fat horses with shiny coats. Mowing the grass and keeping an eye on the severe weather warnings. Homegrown tomatoes and the warm southerly winds perfuming clear nights. Blue skies and green grass, the perfect opposites of winter.

This has been a good winter, though. The big snow was beautiful. There was so much snow that the country roads were pristine white for many days. I enjoyed driving them and noticing how they captured the color of the sky - blue, gray, orange, pink, red or gold.

The worst thing that happened this winter was the loss of poor Evil Roo's comb to frostbite when he was accidentally and unknowingly shut out of the chicken pen for 24 hours. My bank account also took a hard hit thanks to the action of the pack rats who took up residence under the hood of my truck, incurring towing fees, repairs bills, car rental fees, and aggravation. The rest of us at Spirit Creek have made it through the winter, so far, in good shape. I never lost power to my home - unlike former winters. I did not have furnace problems one time - unlike former winters. I had to burn a couple of days of vacation due to impassable roads, but I am not complaining. I slid off the icy roads once - and did not damage myself, my truck, or anyone else's property, so that hardly counts as a negative. Besides, I was driving too fast - my fault.

It has been a good winter, but I will not be too sad to see it fade into the warmth and beauty of spring this year.

Kansas Wildflowers

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Gate

This is the main gate to my pasture. Like every thing, there is a history. It has a story - a simple, ordinary one, but a story just the same.

This is where the hay is brought in every summer, where the vet and farrier enter to look after the horses. Annie was delivered to this gate on a snowy Sunday morning in January, by Frank and Randy, guys from the Wakarusa salebarn. The poor little filly was skinny, her shaggy coat full of burrs and frozen snow. She was so afraid and worried over what was happening that I could see the whites of her eyes. Even being afraid, she willingly did everything the men asked her to do. She was wearing an old dirty halter that hung loosely on her head. In that frayed, ill-fitting halter she looked like a little orphan girl in a ragged dress many sizes too large. It was just natural to call her Little Orphan Annie, so that is how she came to be named Annie.

I love this gate. It looks just like any one of a thousand gates in Wabaunsee County, or anywhere in Kansas, for that matter. It looks as if it is a gate to a large acreage of big bluestem where a fine herd of beef cattle could be grazing - (my secret dream). My Grandpa would admire this gate if he were still here.

I bought the gate panel at Tractor Supply. It is a fourteen foot gate but the bed of my truck is only seven foot long. Using a lot of synthetic twine and driving twenty five miles an hour all the way home on back roads, I managed to arrive without mishap. The gate was not warped, twisted or damaged, but I honestly do not know why. That thing flexed and bounced all the way home, with half of it hanging off the back of the truck.

I actually wanted a red gate, but they were the next size up and cost significantly more. The green matches the trim on the barn and on the house, so all is well, though a red gate would be like a red front door - very attractive and good feng shui.

As the two gate posts aged and weathered, and the tension of the wire increased with cold weather, the gate began to tilt upward. After a couple of years, the free end of it was eventually over four feet off the ground. I do not think either of the horses could possibly have escaped by rolling under the gate, but it did not look good.

At the cafe in Paxico recently, I saw the man who built the fence. I asked if he would take a look at the gate sometime when he was in the area. He is a younger man, born and raised in the county, and I like him a lot. He is friendly, good natured, and unlike so many people who do work "on the side", he turns in quality work on time. I did not feel bad paying him the money for the fence he built around my pasture. Within a week or so after I saw him at the cafe, he had repaired the gate. When I asked what I owed him, he said, "Well.... those bolts were over twenty five.... so.... fifty, I mean one hundred! I mean one hundred, one hundred dollars!"

It made me laugh. He did not mean to be funny, he was just thinking out loud. I gladly paid him the money. He made two trips out here and at least one to Topeka for parts, and my gate looked GREAT. (He is really handsome, too - that's worth an extra $25 right there!)

Every time anyone enters that gate, it is a race to get through and get it closed before the horses gallop up to investigate. My horses have no fear of a truck, which is so dangerous. If they ever get out on the road, they would not know to get out of the way of traffic. The guy delivering my hay thinks the horses are a pain in the neck when he is trying to bring the hay trailer in. Usually, if the horses are at the far end or along the south fence, a person has plenty of time to get in. Getting out is another matter. Ginger has no wander lust, but Annie takes every opportunity to escape.

One very dark winter morning when I was trying to haul water through the gate, both of the horses got out and were heading west on the road. There is not a lot of traffic on my road, but there are usually about five trucks that come by at "country road speed" every morning - my neighbors going east, heading to work in Topeka. The first one usually comes by around 5:30 am - about the time the horses got out.

No matter what I did, those horses just kept going west a few steps at a time. Panic was building in my chest. I knew that at any minute, a truck was going to be blazing down that road about 45 or 50 mph in the dark and the driver would not be expecting two horses in the road. It was a horrible accident waiting to happen. I pulled my truck back out on the road and put the emergency flashers on, though the road is just hilly enough no one would see the lights in time to slow down. I ran, yes, RAN (very slowly) to the house and called the sheriff's office for help... gasping for air as I begged for help.

The sheriff's office in Wabaunsee County never gets in much of a hurry. Escaped horses are not an emergency. The sleepy dispatcher assured me she would get someone out my way, though he was miles away. I threw some feed into a bucket and ran (slower yet) back to the road. Luckily, the sound of feed in the bucket was like a siren song for both of those wayward mares. They dutifully followed me right back into the pasture. Some desperate escapees they were! Then, I had to run (hardly more than a walk by now) back to the house to call the sheriff's office in order to cancel the plea for help. If I was going to have a heart attack, that would have been the moment.

There are bound to be other adventures and other memories crossing that gate in the years ahead. Who knows what.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Rules Versus Common Sense

After considering since last Friday, I made my mind up to adopt the Great Pyrenees mix pup at the local humane shelter. Since I still have the dog I adopted from that shelter eleven years ago, I did not expect to have any difficulty in this adoption.

Since the pup in question is obviously going to be a very large dog when grown, I imagined the volunteers at the shelter would be happy to have found someone willing to adopt her.

Since the pup exhibits behavior issues, I imagined those in charge of placing the animals would be extra happy to place such a puppy.

One little stumbling block. My home is owner financed, meaning my name is not showing in the public records. I pay all taxes, all insurance. I am responsible for all repair, and for anything that falls apart or stops working, but the humane shelter insisted on calling the "landlord" to secure permission for me to have a dog on my own property.

I asked if they contacted mortgage companies to get permission from other home owners. They said they did not. I explained that I did not have a "landlord", and they did not need to call anyone for me to have permission to adopt the dog. They insisted on getting one more phone number. I refused on principle.

This is an animal shelter that annually euthanizes two-thirds of all animals that have the misfortune to come into their facility. In 2008, that was almost 7000 animals put to death by the Topeka Helping Hands Humane Shelter.

From now on, my money will go to support animal rescues that are in the business of placing as many animals as possible into loving homes.

Seed Savers Exchange

For every day of piercing despair over the abuse of the earth, I consider the determined and energetic people of the Seed Savers Exchange. It is a wonderful endeavor started before 1975 by Diane Whealy and her husband, homesteaders in Missouri. They wrote to Mother Earth News and other such magazines about the idea of an heirloom seed exchange. From that small beginning it has grown to a network of over 11,000 gardeners worldwide, saving genetic diversity and heirloom plants and animals for future generations.

The large farm and orchard is located in Decorah, Iowa. They maintain vaults of seeds and hundreds of acres of gardens each year. It is a splendid idea and one that sprang up entirely without government oversight or interference.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Dog Days

Duke, the guardian of Spirit Creek, is getting up there in age. This last year he has slowed down considerably. He struggles a bit getting up if he has been lying in the sun too long. Nothing has dimmed his enthusiasm and likely never will. He is a happy dog, a happy being.

I hope he has lived a good life here. I adopted him from the Topeka humane society when he was just a fat puppy with big feet. He was my boy's dog but mostly he has been my dog. He has always been very friendly. He found out the hard way that not everyone wants to be friends as enthusiastically as he does, and he still forgets sometimes. He only knows "sit" and that is only for a short time. He hardly obeys me. In fact, he does not obey me at all, and never has. He cooperates, though. He has always had his freedom, never being penned or tied up.

I have utterly failed teaching him not to jump on people. He knows if I am wearing my old work coat, he can get away with planting muddy paws on me. He still gets in a good one sometimes when I am dressed for work but what's a few muddy paw prints on clean clothes?

He ran away one time. I do not know if he willingly took off, if the coyotes ran him and he lost his way, or if there were stray dogs that enticed him. I called the humane shelter and reported him missing first thing. I called my neighbors. I looked for Duke every night after work, and every weekend. I put classified ads in two local newspapers, and posted signs in the Paxico post office, though that is eight miles away, across two creeks. When none of that worked, I laid out in the middle of my barren pasture, crying and praying to my dead parents to please help me find my dog. I know that seems terribly dramatic, but it is true.

On the tenth day, lo there was a phone call. When I answered, an angry woman's voice snapped "I got yer dog!". No hello, how are you, kiss my behind - nothing. Still, a great relief washed over me. "Thank god," I said, followed by "Are you sure?!" What if it was not my dog?

The Humane Society tag was still on his collar so she thought someone from Topeka had abandoned an unwanted dog in Paxico. I burned rubber into Paxico and found the stinky Duke tied up at the woman's house. We were exceedingly glad to see each other, though he was so smelly that he left an odor in the cab of my new truck that lingered for days. He has never wandered off the place since that day. I have never known for sure if his big adventure scared him into staying home, or if he chose to remain. There are times when I feel certain he made an Old Testament decision "to return unto the land of Spirit Creek and dwell among them for the remainder of his days".

Duke has been such a good dog, I think more often what I can do to repay him for his life of service. The only canine companion he has ever had was an abandoned dog who came on my property and was dominant over Duke. After that dog killed my cat, I placed him with dog rescue people, but Duke had learned how to defend himself. When another abandoned dog showed up, Duke maintained the rights to his own food and position. I fed that dog for several days, and would have kept him, but he was grieving and very unhappy. One night he pointed his nose to the sky and a long, mournful howl welled up from his broken heart. Without a backward glance, he ran into the darkness searching for the humans who had so heartlessly abandoned him.

I think Duke might like to have a companion in his old age, someone who can share the duties of marking territory, chasing the rabbits, and barking at coyotes. He needs someone he could still play with a bit before he is too old to do anything but sleep. I have considered several dogs over the years but none of them were right. Friday I found the perfect dog, a female Great Pyrenees mix at the same shelter I found the Duke. She is a very nice looking four month old puppy - already huge. The saddest thing is that she and her litter mates have either been abused or without any human contact. The poor thing is so terrified that she freezes, and hides her face in the corner of the visiting room. I am reluctant to take her. Any psychological scars in a dog as big as she will be when grown could mean a lot of heartache and trouble. But she has stayed on my mind since Friday. I might take Duke to town today and see what he thinks of the pup. If he likes her and she is not terrified of him, Duke's big heart might be all she needs.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Peat and Repeat

I had to travel to Oklahoma City last Wednesday. I greatly dislike traveling to big cities, and the very best thing about it is coming home. I always arrive home with a renewed appreciation of my little corner of the world.

I have been to Oklahoma City several times. I heard once that it was the largest city in the world, based on square miles - a bit of information stuck uselessly in my mind for decades. With the Internet at hand, there honestly is no good excuse to not know if OKC was, or is, the largest city in the world based on area. But then, who cares?

Each time I go there, I fall in love with the red earth of Oklahoma again. In some areas it is orange, other places it is red. There are some spots where the dirt looks almost purple. I have thought it would be fun to bring home the various shades of Oklahoma red earth to make a dirt garden. I do not know how that red dirt would fare in Kansas, though, or what would grow in it. Another useless idea taking up space on my organic hard drive.

I can never travel to another state without remembering the Indians who lived there first. It is as if their tribal memories line up along the highways, hitch a ride, and haunt me with their gentle, forgotten presence. From their vantage point, those old Spirits might not care any more that they were cheated, slaughtered, and brutalized out of their land and lives. But they continually and quietly warn we hasten our own demise with the unmitigated abuse and soulless disregard for the land - the same land we killed most of the Indians to own. Sometimes I think: let the environmental apocalypse roll! We have it coming. If any people ever had a day of reckoning coming, it is us.

Oklahoma was the last stop for so many eastern tribes. They came from forests, mountains, wide rivers. Even the water is different east of the Mississippi. As I drove the I-35 miles last week, I marveled that any of the People survived the forced move to this red earthed place. How would I survive emotionally or spiritually if I were forced out of Kansas, even in modern times? Here, I well know the seasons. I know and understand the plants and animals. I know how to live in the winds of Kansas. I have always loved the rise of the prairie hills against the horizon. I have lived my life hearing coyotes howling and hawks whistling. The limestone dissolved in the water has entered my very bones.

I also sometimes consider my ancestor's travel to this country from Ireland, Scotland, and England. Those early immigrants must have grieved for their homeland until the day they died. So how terrible were the conditions in Scotland that they chanced coming to America? And where will we go when the conditions in America are too terrible?

There are days when the knowledge almost suffocates me that Monsanto and other bio-engineering corporations are slowly strangling the life out of the land while deviously outlawing our individual rights to farm the earth. In 2007 the EPA warned to limit consumption of any locally caught fish to one 8 ounce meal per week for adults - nationwide. Kansas has far more detailed information regarding where to fish, how much to chance eating, and what poisons you are ingesting, depending on where you caught the fish. We live among the pollution. People have careers measuring the poisons. We all apparently think it is alright to live this way. I apparently think it is okay to live this way.

Last week on television I saw the man credited with discovering the giant whirlpool of plastic and trash in the Pacific ocean. A floating mass twice the size of Texas. Unimaginable.

In some distant archaeological epoch, all that will be left of our time on earth will be a toxic layer of peat preserving our poisonous and fatal legacy, and our diseased bones. The genetically engineered plants and animals will fossilize along with the last of the natural genetics, and all those who gathered riches at the expense of the living earth will be so long dead. I wonder if any of the old Indian spirits will welcome us at their fires.

Nez Perce photo from US Historical Archive. Scots photo from Scottish genealogy web site here.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Winter Photos

First Monday morning after the Christmas Blizzard.

Three days of dense fog ended this morning - most unusual in Kansas.

Chickens enjoying some free range time in the sunlight.

Spirit Creek's melting snow.

Ready for spring.

Mouse Fairy

Two mice in a bucket is not better than one in a trap.

When I left the house this morning, I found the Mouse Fairy had left a gift in the five gallon water bucket. Since several of these little critters continually evade the peanut butter baited traps in the house, I guess the Great Mouse Fairy decided to take pity on me and leave me two on the doorstep with no effort whatsoever on my part.

They were freezing and very afraid, poor little guys. I took them to the east end of my property and let them go. Hopefully they can survive there. Hopefully it is so far from my house that they will not find their way back!

They tug at your heartstrings when they look at you with those little black eyes.

The gate of freedom.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Appropriate Terms for Inappropriate Behavior

Driving home from work yesterday I was thinking about names, terms used to describe certain behaviors in our fellow human beings. I do not remember the first time I heard someone called an "ass hat", but I immediately knew the exact behavior it described: my significant other removed parts from my running Harley to fix his broken Harley - so he could go on a ride and I could not. Ass hat, yes?

Scheduled for a week of high priority, high intensity training, I was nervously searching for my assigned seat in a room full of smart, professional people. I found my seat - at the shortest table in the room. "I see I have been assigned to the little bus," I deadpanned to genuine laughter. We had to go around the room introducing ourselves, and my table mate stole my line when he introduced himself. Though he did not get much laughter, still an ass hat, yes?

How about this for the ultimate ass hat: a coworker asks you to run copies for him, presumably to save his far more valuable time for far more important work, then he stands by watching you run his copies. A great and mighty cry rose up from the worker bee ranks and the Boss put an end to such ass hattery, as well he should.

Everyone has worn that ass hat at one time or another. I am sure I have, but I just can not think of a single time right now....

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Magic Headlamp


The Magic Headlamp - a marvelous flashlight designed to be worn on the head, attached by a wide elastic band that adjusts to the size of any head, including one with many extra winter coverings. It was a birthday gift from my kids, and it gives me bionic sight in the dark. It beams forth from the exact location of my third eye, and I feel like an Enlightened Being roaming the dark lower world whenever I wear it.

It is a particularly bright light, an LED. If I slowly scan the dark I can catch the reflection of many eyes.

The horses' eyes reflect silver, and I can see them beyond the apparent reach of the beam in the night. Their eyes look a bit similar to stars blinking on and off low on the horizon as I walk up toward the barn. I seldom see their eyes straight on, and they pace in anticipation of their food, so I only catch glimpses of their strange triangular eyes.

The old Dukester Dog's eyes reflect gold, and he has given me a scare many times. If I have lost track of him and suddenly spot a pair of steady glowing eyes silently regarding me in the dark, a tiny jolt of adrenaline electrifies me. I believe it is a reflexive response. My genes full well recall when glowing eyes meant saber tooth lions and other woman-eating carnivores. And oh yeah, sometimes - sometimes - just for the barest, briefest microsecond, I think it is the devil coming to take me home.

When I first received The Headlamp, I had the extreme good fortune to share my home with Avalon, the most adorable cat in the world. She was a little black cat with green eyes. I tried to keep her delightful little spirit safely in the house, but she preferred being outside. She spent the better part of her indoor life scheming on ways to shoot out the door at top speed. She wanted to escort me to and from the barn, along with the Duke. We were a comic sight, walking the narrow path up and back: me, the Duke, Avalon, in that order.

One of the first times I used The Headlamp, Avalon came bounding down the driveway when she heard me calling. The intense reflections of her eyes advancing in the dark were remarkably, startlingly bright - not to mention that it made me laugh right out loud. She was irrepressible, whether I could see her or not.

Avalon at her favorite indoor post, sqeezed between the top shelf and the monitor.

The chickens' eyes also make me smile. As you would expect of a species that sleeps with the sun, their eyes do not reflect much - just tiny yellow points, jostling and gaggling about as the little flock stirs and adjusts itself according to pecking order and vantage point.

I have seen tiny eyes glowing amid the vegetation that I assumed were mice or vole eyes. Once, a pair of glowing eyes slowly raised a few inches, then slowly lowered out of sight as an animal stealthily tracked my whereabouts. I believe it was the Cheshire Cat himself - mysteriously and slowly dissolving into the black night.

This morning at the barn, I was startled to catch a pair of bright reflective eyes glowing from the topmost hay bale. I quickly turned my head to train the full beam toward the eyes, catching a cat full in the light. I called to it, but it turned and disappeared. It might be a neighbor's cat, or a feral cat that escaped from one of the farms, or is an abandoned survivor. I welcome it in my barn, no matter.

I have no true ending for this little post about eyes glowing in the dark. I really wanted to write about the fact that Junior has turned out to be a full-out rooster rapist after the manner of his mother's breed, the Cochins. If I titled this post the "Rapist Rooster" or something similar, think of the sort of queries my blog might turn up in!

PS. Cave Woman had a huge lapse in memory. Avalon was already gone, taken by a wild animal long before I got the magic headlamp. My memory of Avalon's eyes bounding down the driveway where from the days when I had to use a handheld flashlight and I had been given a small LED flashlight. Apologies.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Knitting for Chickens

I wish this was a photo of one of my chickens, but alas, it is not. It is a photo from Jason Houston

Here is also a great web site where ladies in the UK knit sweaters for rescued chickens: Chicken Sweaters

I am not the only crazy Chicken Woman in the world. There are many, many of us. I think it is like a virus and is mutating and spreading!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Evil Roo' Calamity

Last Saturday the chicken coop got a new stuffing of hay and the chicken flock took the opportunity to leave the pen, too. Snow covered the ground so the extent of their venturing was to cling to the base of a large tree near their pen, or gather on the edge of an upturned bucket. I assumed that once their house was back in order with fresh food and water served, they would come in out of the snow and cold. They chose to remain huddled in the snow.

I had to leave, and knew it would be a close call to return home by dark. I have not seen a coyote nor any tracks near the house recently, so I was not too worried about their safety in the short term. When I got home later that night, the chickens had returned to the coop but only eleven were there. I thought maybe Tenzing had returned to her solitary condo on the back porch - a long trek through twelve inches of snow for a little hen about nine inches tall, though.

I closed up the pen against predators and came in the house but there was no little hen on the back porch. I sadly assumed the wild critters had collected one of the hens as a tithe.

It was not until Sunday evening when I was coming back from the barn, wearing the marvelous headlamp (a gift from my kids)that I noticed in the laser-like beam a white lump on top of the chicken pen. (The entire pen is enclosed in chicken wire to protect the chickens from ground and air attacks.) The lump turned out to be the Evil Rooster, formerly known as Elvis. He had been away from his flock, in the brutal winter elements for twenty four hours. Where he had been all night and all day, I do not know. He was perched at the peak of the pen and I could not reach him. I had to force him down with a rake. I was certain he was frost bitten, maybe even dying, though he protested mightily over the rude raking. I simply put him in the coop with his flock and hoped the gradual warming would be the best thing for him. He immediately began eating, so at least his gizzard was not frozen.

What a calamity it was for him to be alone in the brutal cold with no food, no water, no warmth. D'Uccles do not roost with their heads under their wings, so I was certain his comb was frostbitten. He has stayed in the midst of his flock since I put him back in the coop, and his comb is turning dark. I do not know if he will lose all of it, or not. I can hardly believe the poor little guy survived for twenty four hours on his own, anyway. There are so many animals that would love to eat a rooster - not just coyotes.


Monday, January 4, 2010

Worse Than a New Year

Ahhhh - the annual abject depression, and the yawning chasm of "the future" sensed in increasing spiritual and mental anguish on the first day of work after "The Holidays". My birthday over, Christmas past, New Year's gone, my daughter another year older, and no free days off work now until the end of May - it is bleak and forlorn. This year the malaise is ten times as bad because it is the start of a new decade. And, this century is flying by! At this rate, I will wake up tomorrow one hundred years old, wondering what the hell happened to my middle age.

My son is on his way to Keystone for four days of snowboarding. Ahhhh, to be a college student, living in abject poverty but rich in freedom. I sincerely hope he has a great time on the slopes. I wish I was young enough to go with him, if only for a single day. I could embarrass him in Colorado the way I embarrassed him swimming with dolphins in Hawaii. It took a skinny surfer dude and a martial arts black belt master from Japan to haul me back into the canoe. Thank God for the focused discipline of the Japanese people or I would still be adrift in the Pacific.

From the moment I woke up today dreading the start of a new work week, in a new year, in a new decade, I gave myself a pep talk, telling myself to consider the good, find the positive in my life as I enter fully into these fresh beginnings. Slogging through the snow and ice to the barn, shivering in the zero degree moonlight, despite the despair and bad news, I had an epiphany: I knew unequivocally I would not be bitten by a prairie rattler this morning. It is the best news of all so far in 2010.