Cause and Effect and Dullness

On my way to the north end of the farm I pass the blueberries. They are plump, dark blue, and sweet, and I would rather be picking them, but I have a job to do so I pass on by, across the stretch I covered yesterday and turn the tractor east and down the slope.
Across the fence, the neighbor moves along much slower on his larger, newer, shinier orange tractor than do I on this smaller green one. His mower is designed for shaving vast swaths of lawn and he covers his lawn deliberately, meticulously. My mower churns and chops, tears and shreds overgrown blackberry, flower stalks, thick grass, and small trees. He waves from across the fence and I wave back, then we both return to the necessary focus of our labors.

Even as I type the word “labor” I realize it does not feel like the right word for my act. Strapped into a diesel-fueled iron horse named John who never gets tired, never questions my commands, never starts at the sight of a snake, is content to sit for weeks without food, water, sunshine or exercise and requires only that I remain in the seat and steer to keep her on task. My back will ache from the pounding of uneven terrain, but that is the the result of genetics—bad discs—not exertion. My shoulders will be uncomfortable only due to sunburn. The most pain I will feel from the job is from the large blackberry cane that catches the inside of the front right tire and whips my hand and forearm before I can get them out of the way.

I am nearly finished with my mowing, and feeling satisfied with the near completion of a required task, but I do not like what I am doing. I see the deer trails criss-crossing the hillside, and the handful of beds in the thick. I see small ripe blackberries deep in the patch disappearing beneath my machine. Had I mowed around them, I would not have eaten them, but I know something would have. Black and blue dragonflies, and grasshoppers as long as my middle finger scatter at my approach, and I cringe wondering what didn’t get out of the way. This is the corner where I release the copperheads I save from neighbors who insist I move them farther away from their homes than I would like. I want them to be safe here.

I have just made a turn when a surge of adrenaline says “go!” I feel the rush for a split second before I see the swarm surrounding the tractor. There is nowhere I can go. Nothing I can do but keep mowing. In second gear with the PTO engaged, my throttle pedal would not have the necessary effect, and I have no window to roll up. Hundreds of large, buzzing, black insects surround me, then retreat. One flies into the back of my neck, another hits my arm, yet a third lands in my hair. I wait for the stings.

As quickly as the irritated colony is aroused, they retreat to their disturbed home, and I turn to see the remnants of a shredded paper nest I guess to have been the size of a basket ball prior to my rude home wrecking. I can’t imagine why they did not sting me, but I heed their warning and give them a wide berth in subsequent passes. I never come close enough to identify the species.

Amazed by the lack of stings, I wonder if it might be a bumble bees colony. I have heard of them nesting above ground in thick grasses, but have never encountered such a nest. Whatever they are, if I thought they would enjoy a bottle of beer, I would gladly take them one for not counter attacking.

In the next pass, a rat snake slithers as quickly as a racer from my whirling guillotines unscathed, and just after the snake, a large box turtle gives me a start. I fear I might have caught her high dome with the mower, but she, too, unharmed, is making a beeline south. I wonder if she is the old lady who buried her eggs in my blueberries last year.

These are but a few of the reasons I do not like to mow, and why I so often put it off. If I want to stand for anything, it is wildness. Aldo Leopold wrote that, “We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness,” but I would rather strive for the tension and danger of a wild meadow evolving back into a forest, and I suspect deer, snake, turtle, and hornets agree.

This meadow was a forest for thousands of years before being logged maybe seventy-five years ago, then again in the last decade, and a forest is what it wants to be. In the midst of all the grasses, flowers, bramble and vines, young oaks, poplars, sweet gum, and sourwood are trying to reestablish, but I stop them. Stopping them is my job and this part of my job is not negotiable. So I churn, chop, tear, and shred as infrequently as I think I can get away with. My landlord probably sees my infrequent leveling of the brush as laziness, but it is not that. Were I granted permission to manage this plot to be what it desires, I would be out here far more often to nurture it.

Were I managing the land to reforest it, I would labor over it. Selective cutting cannot be achieved with this giant machine. To steward a small forest is work best achieved on foot with hand tools–labor.

When my work is done, and the tractor in the barn, I walk back out to the barren scape with camera in hand, stopping first to check on the Carolina wrens nesting in the garden shed. Mother wren retreats, scolding loudly to a nearby cherry tree, and I take a couple quick photos of the five nestlings.

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Out in the meadow, I stop short of the broken paper nest for a few photos with a long lens. What is left of the nest is crawling with bald-faced hornets, and I realize how fortunate I am that cause and effect is sometimes lost on hornets, and that mother wrens do not have stingers!

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Not wanting to push my luck with the hornets, I wander across the meadow. There is no evidence left of deer trails or beds. Rat snake and turtle are out of sight. Even the dragonflies and grasshoppers seem to have disappeared, so I move to chat with the robins who are busy harvesting my blueberries for me. I suppose that is their job, so in the spirit of the peaceful hornets, I pretend to not know the cause and effect of robins and disappearing blueberries, and do not scold them.

It is nearly dark when I reach the house where life is safe, prosperous, comfortable and dull, and I do not have to share my beer with hornets, whether I labored enough to earn it, or not.

Spring

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What began as eight pine siskins jockeying for position on the thistle feeder when I sat down at the kitchen table with my coffee has swelled to over forty of the gregarious little birds retreating to the top of a nearby persimmon tree as I rise for a refill. Still bare of leaves, the crown of the fifty foot tall tree makes for a perfect spot to estimate (or even count outright if they stay still enough long enough) the size of the flock. I do not hear the bugle that rally back, but as one they swoop–a half dozen landing on the thistle feeder, a couple on the sunflower tube, the rest joining a pair of purple finches, a chipping sparrow, a handful of juncos, and one cardinal on the ground below. Somewhere nearby, a song sparrow sings his delight for this clear early spring morning. As I scan the multitude in the grass, a titmouse calls from the top of the tree and four goldfinches enter the scene. Eight o’clock, March 25th.

It is officially less than a week past the equinox, but my spring began three weeks ago on the evening of the first day of March when chorus frogs began their celebration of spring, sun, and sex. This morning, as I lay awake in bed before the sun, spring peepers are joining the chorus that reaches me through an open window. I often hear people speak of the peepers as the the announcement of spring but, at least in my pond, they are second fiddle.

Back in the kitchen, something spooks the mixed flock and no sooner than they dispersed, the song sparrow slipped in silently to take her place to dine alone among the scattered mixed seed beneath the feeders…. for a moment.

Thirty yards north of the feeders, through the dense foliage, I see the dark silhouettes of a flock of waxwings scouring the tree of berries. Three, four, and five at a time they drop to the ground beneath to eat the berries that have fallen. Unfortunately, the cameras at my disposal do not possess enough telephoto to capture these little works of art, but I stand and gaze through the binoculars for twenty minutes. Just before their retreat, seven of the flock were on the ground at once, all holding bright red berries in their beaks. What manner of man can walk away from a flock of waxwings I do not know!

The feeders are empty now, and two mourning doves sit on the limbs of the tree cocking their heads to the side, seemingly asking themselves if it is worth the effort to descend twelve feet for a snack. A towhee joins them for a few minutes, then one branch at a time ladders his way down. A few nibbles and in true towhee fashion he is spooked and gone. The doves keep watch in silence until a bluejay squawks from across the yard, and I head out to refill the feeders for the next wave.

It is time for the first mowing of the season, and the first cut will be a laborious one, as my path will be dictated not so much by fence lines and contours, as by daffodils clustered around the fields. I could mow a daffodil about as easily as I could walk away from a flock of waxwings! For the past couple of weeks, any walk around the farm has been slowed by pause after pause to lie in the grass for that perfect angle to photograph yellow flower against blue sky. Unlike the waxwings, the flowers stay put and allow as close an approach as I desire. My endeavors to immortalize the buttercups deliver another spring arrival–my first tick of the season.

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Pussy Willow at the North End of the Pond

All around the farm, buds, leaves, and new growth signal the season. The bees are coming and going from the hive, the pussy willow at the end of the pond is covered with tiny pollinators of all stripes, and the pair of geese that have been hanging around the pond are enjoying forays to explore all the commotion around the feeders. In the woods I look for morels and find blooming trillium. The mower fills the air with the smell of chives. Spring.

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Trillium Blooming in the Woods on the Next Ridge

Crossing the Road–A Chicken’s Journey

While I’m posting old articles, I thought y’all might enjoy looking back at this one–also from the Pulse.
“The ground was frozen solid so I couldn’t bury her,” she began slowly. “It was during that week of sub-freezing weather…” Her voice trailed as she thought back to the trying morning in question. “It took awhile,” she continued. “But I managed to break open the compost and bury her there… underneath a cushaw cross…”

Candice Dougherty, assistant manager at Crabtree Farms in Chattanooga, went on to explain how she had been the only one at the farm that morning—a “snow day,” she called it. She worked in the office for a while before deciding to check on things in the greenhouse. When the big white chicken she lovingly called “Chicky,” didn’t meet her at the door, she began to worry. She scanned the greenhouse. She didn’t have far to look. On her left, a few white feathers stuck over the edge of a fifty-gallon water bucket.

“That bucket is big—about two-and-a-half feet tall.” Dougherty said, her brow furrowed with disgust. “She had to put some effort into getting up there, but she couldn’t get back out…she was stiff as a board. I saw her and just started cussin’.”
I wondered how a fat and awkward bird like that could get to the top of such a big bucket, so I asked Dougherty if she ever saw her fly. “No, not really,” she responded. “If you’d walk away (from her), she would scream. “I’m comin! I’m comin!” She went on to describe a big bird with a wobbly gait that would run after her, flapping its wings, never getting off the ground.
Around the corner from us, Farm Manager Joel Houser was listening to our conversation. “We went from being repulsed by her to falling in love with her,” he added.

“Chicky” went by many names in her last 30 days, but most folks called her Chicken Little. Her odd way of wobbling when she walked, the curious way she cocked her head and looked up at folks, and the way she followed farm workers and visitors around like a puppy made her irresistible to almost all who met her.

Chicken Little’s journey to Crabtree began on the morning of December 3rd, 2009. Allison Fellers was driving home from taking her son to school. It was 7:45 and the self-proclaimed “not-a-morning-person” was still in her pajamas when she saw something wobbling around in the middle of the road. “It didn’t know if it should go right or left. It was stuck there in the road…” When a man in a minivan slammed on the brakes, narrowly missing the confused bird, Fellers pulled over, turned on her flashers, ran to the middle of the road, knelt down in her multi-colored, polka dot flannel pajamas and down slippers, said a prayer, scooped up the chicken, and ran back to her car.

Chicken Little was “near death” and “covered from head to tail in chicken poop” When Fellers found her lost in the middle of Broad Street in front of the Pilgrim’s Pride processing facility. She put the chicken in the front seat, but it immediately jumped to the floorboard where it sat, unmoving, eyes closed, all the way to the farm.

Chickens were not new to Fellers. Before she and her husband John moved from Signal Mountain down to the Southside neighborhood of Cowart Place, they kept egg-layers for a while, but this was unlike any chicken she had ever encountered.
“It didn’t have the natural shape of a chicken. I don’t know if it was the lack of feathers…” Fellers recounted how her whole car reeked of chicken feces and how the chicken was “practically bald with just a few sparse feathers here and there.”
Speaking of factory farm chickens in general, Mike Barron, greenhouse manager said, “They have a tough time standing on their own. They are bred for muscle size but don’t develop strength.”
In spite of the fact that Crabtree is a vegetable farm and doesn’t raise any animals, Chicken Little was not the first chicken dropped off at the urban farm. “Someone brought us a rooster that didn’t like kids,” Said Joel Houser, farm manager. “We fattened it for a few days and then ate it, so when (Fellers) called, we thought, Great, another one to eat! When we saw it, though, we knew we couldn’t eat it.”

When the folks at Crabtree first saw (and smelled) the disheveled chicken Fellers delivered, nobody thought it had a chance at survival.  Dougherty opened the passenger door and looked down at the smelly mess in the floorboard. The chicken didn’t even open her eyes as she reluctantly wrapped her arms around it and lifted it out of the car. Eager to distance herself from the filthy bird, Dougherty immediately set it down in the parking lot. Looking for a response, she poked it. The chicken fell over. According to Dougherty, “You could touch her eye and she wouldn’t even blink.” The crew had plenty of reservations, not the least of which was disease. But since the farm had no resident chickens whose health they needed to worry about, and since they were certainly in a better position to keep her than was Fellers, they let the sickly bird stay, and despite their less-than-positive expectations for the pitiful-looking fowl, they decided to do their best to care for it.

“We put her in the greenhouse to protect her from Hawks…put in a bowl of water and a winter squash, and she didn’t touch it. She didn’t know what real food was. Didn’t recognize it,” said Dougherty, clearly disgusted by the state of the chicken.
For the first couple of days, the poor, disheveled and disoriented chicken hunkered under the protective cover of the greenhouse without eating a thing and barely moving. Then Dougherty decided to try something different; she scattered a little multi-colored popcorn on the ground in front of Chicken Little and the bird immediately went for the yellow corn, devouring it but ignoring the other colors. “Must have looked like whatever they fed it where it was raised,” Dougherty reasoned.

With limited feeding success now under her belt, Dougherty gained some hope and started experimenting. She offered a worm, but even when she draped it over the chicken’s beak, it wouldn’t eat it. Then she put some popcorn on a cushaw squash. Chicken Little ate the popcorn and when bits of squash stuck to the corn, she quickly discovered she liked that too.
Realizing that the chicken had the capacity to be taught, Dougherty waited for a sunny day, then shooed now-named “Chicken Little” out of the greenhouse. Again, she tried showing her an earthworm. This time, the more alert and less hungry chicken saw the wriggler and pecked it right up, so she gave her a handful of soil filled with worms. It worked…to a degree. Chicken Little watched the dirt and pecked out anything she saw moving, but she made no effort to scratch at the dirt, to uncover more food.

Dougherty started leaving seed, a squash, an apple or some popcorn out in the greenhouse at night. During the day they let her out, gave her free-range access to the farm.After being introduced to her new menu, Chicken Little started following Dougherty around the farm. Surrounded by enough quality food to feed an army of chickens, this one was interested only in what Dougherty would give her. One day, while weeding, Dougherty found a slug. Since her friend stood by looking for a treat, she tried tossing it the slug. The chicken took one sideways glance at the pest and pecked it up. Dougherty realized that she had a great tool on her hands and encouraged to chicken to go everywhere with her.  She took her in the hoop house (a plastic sided, tunnel-shaped greenhouse for winter growing) and Chicken Little followed along, eating whatever she threw her. Dougherty made the mistake of tossing a wilted piece of kale to the eating machine.  She loved it and couldn’t be stopped from eating it, so Dougherty imposed a new rule on the chicken with the growing appetite. No Chickens in the hoop houses! Chicken Little didn’t seem to mind the imposition, though. Dougherty taught her to eat clover and as long as she kept talking to her, the bird followed along outside hoop house, waiting for her friend to emerge, all the while stuffing herself on clover. By the end of a long day, Chicken Little’s crop looked like a baseball. “Overnight, her gullet would shrink, but the end of the day, she would be fat again,” Houser observed.

It was the following Wednesday when Dougherty says she really fell in love with the bird. The crew was pulling privet (an invasive European hedge that thrives in edge habitat) at the margin of the property. Chicken Little was right alongside. She was awkward at first in trying to eat the berries that are a favorite of songbirds, but she soon learned to scratch at the berries to reveal the inner seed. What little Chicken Little didn’t know was that she was doing the farm a huge service because unlike songbirds who spread the invasive plant when they eat the berries, then drop them in scat along power lines and fencerows, Chickens are able to totally digest the seed so that it comes out as rich fertilizer, no longer viable for reproduction.

As the chicken continued to gain strength, she started taking care of herself, too. For the first time they saw her preening—slowly transforming her previously caked feathers. “We didn’t clean her, but by the time she left here, she was beautiful and white,” Dougherty said with a proud smile. “She had cleaned herself up…her beak was a mess though—all covered with dried squash.”

I learned firsthand what a quick study the new mascot was on a visit to the farm in the middle of December. At the end of my stay, several of us chatted under an oak tree in the gravel parking lot. Chicken Little heard Dougherty’s distinctive laugh and came running over. She turned her head, pointing one of her eyes up at her companion. When Dougherty didn’t respond with an expected treat, Chicken Little just hung out with us.

Surprised the chicken wasn’t scratching the ground for food, I asked Dougherty why her chicken wasn’t eating the smashed acorns that were all around us. “Too sour?” I speculated. “No. She just doesn’t know its food,” she responded with a chuckle.
That’s all I needed to hear. Kneeling down, I picked up a broken nut and crumbled it in my hand, which I then extended towards the chicken. After the same sideways look she had given Candice moments before, Chicken Little pecked the seed bits from my palm. I pointed to the ground to show her that there was more where that came from, but she just gave me that same look. Again, I crushed up a seed in my hand. After a few of these offers, I let Chicken Little see the nut, then dropped it at her feet. That was all it took. As she ate the one I presented, her little head jerked to one side and then the other as she began to recognize the smorgasbord at her feet.  For the rest of our conversation in the parking lot, Chicken Little was fat and happy in acorn heaven.

According to Houser, Chicken Little maintained her love for acorns. A few days after the acorn discovery, he pulled in the parking lot to see a flock of doves under that same oak tree, foraging for nuts. In the middle of them, one odd, white bird stood out, towering over the rest of the smaller gray birds. “She was one of the flock,” he said with a smile.

Reflecting back on the relationship she forged with her companion, Dougherty commented that she “didn’t know chickens could understand like that… She learned the sound of my voice.” And Chicken Little didn’t just recognize her voice but “knew when she was being called.”

Dougherty told me how they were out taking pictures of the farm in the snow, and she called Chicken Little so they could get a photograph of her. “As soon as she heard me call, she came running.”  The next morning Dougherty stood in the door of the greenhouse, calling for a friend who didn’t answer.

I called Pilgrim’s Pride in an attempt to learn the prehistory of Chicken Little. I wanted to ask them how she might have come to wandering around in the middle of Broad Street, covered in feces. I wondered how a chicken could live to maturity without learning what “real food was.”  I had a lot of questions.

My first call, to the corporate office in Texas, resulted in the voice mailbox of Ray Atkinson, where I left a message. I tried the local plant.

“Hello. Pilgrim’s Pride.”

“Hi, my name is Jim Pfitzer. I’m writing an article about a chicken…”
    “I’ll transfer you.”

“Hello, Rick Bailey.”
    “Hi, my name is Jim Pfitzer. I’m writing an article about a chicken…”
    “I’m sorry, but you’ll have to call Ray Atkinson. I can give you his number”

“He’s in Texas, right?”
“That’s right.
“But the chicken is in Chattanooga…”

“I’m sorry, but you have to call Mr. Atkinson.”

“But he’s in Texas…”

“Correct.”

“But Chicken Little is right here in Chattanooga. It’s a feel-good story about one of your chickens, who got a new lease on life. I was hoping…”

“Sir, you have to call Ray Atkinson His number is…”

“But Ray Atkinson hasn’t met this chicken. It’s in Chattanooga. Perhaps you have. If I could just have a minute of your time….”

“I’m sorry sir, but it is company policy.”

“Pilgrim’s Pride has a company policy dictating that community interest stories about Chattanooga chickens can only be addressed by Ray Atkinson in Texas?”

“That’s correct, Sir.”

“You won’t talk to me at all?”

“No Sir. It’s Company Policy.”

“Can we talk about…”
    “No Sir. We cannot talk about anything.”

Perhaps it’s just as well that they wouldn’t talk to me. According to their website, Pilgrim’s Pride has the capacity to process 45 million birds per week. Even if he had talked, I doubt … would have been able to tell me about one, specific bird.
After our non-conversation, I drove over to the intersection of Main and Broad, just a half block from where Fellers and Chicken Little first met. Looking at the flatbed trailers stacked with thousands of chickens in tiny, individual cages, I couldn’t help noticing how they all looked alarmingly like the poor white bird that was saved by Allison Fellers on that chilly morning in early December, and I remember something Fellers told me about how that little bird affected her. “I changed my route taking my son to school because I can’t stand to see the trucks with all those chickens packed together…” She was quiet for moment, then added, “They’re like children. They’re innocent. God made them to do certain things…scratch in the dirt and eat bugs.” Before driving away, I thought about how different Chicken Little looked after just a couple of weeks of good food and sunshine.

Dying alone in the middle of the night, in a bucket of cold water is certainly a horrible death for a lovable bird that became the mascot of an urban farm, but at least this one bird out of 45 million found some redemption in her final days. It is certainly safe to assume that she was the only one of those millions who was loved enough to have an obituary.

In an email to friends and admirers of Chicken Little on the afternoon after her death, Joel Houser eulogized her this way: “After many trials and tribulations, Chicken Little succumbed to a bucket of water in the greenhouse. She was a tough chicken, full of personality, who loved company. After being raised by the devil, rescued by a woman in pajamas, she found herself in her later weeks. She may not have come to us a chicken, but she died a chicken.”

Eating on the Road

The sun is setting as I leave my hotel room for a bite to eat. After ten hours in the car today I was determined not to drive any more. I will walk to supper. It is pleasantly chilly—a perfect evening for hoofing it in Peoria, IL, but I’m hungry and tired. I don’t want to walk far. Up and down the street neon lights beckon passersby, hawking too-familiar bites—Panera, McDonald’s, Olive Garden… I needn’t go on. You know them all from every interstate exit, shopping mall, suburban strip, and sadly damn near every downtown in the United States. I am in Nowhere, America, and there is nowhere I care to dine within sight.

At home I eat veggies from the CSA and my own garden. I enjoy meat, eggs and milk from local farms, and honey from a local beekeeper. My sausage and cheese are made with local ingredients by local artisans, and my bread from a local baker. When I want fish, I catch it.

Now I stare down a neon lane wondering where I will find my food.

Behind the hotel is a Kroger. Without a kitchen my options there would be limited, but maybe in the deli, I think. The parking lot is packed with cars and I don’t look forward to the throngs of shoppers stocking up for the weekend. Inside, customers with carts piled high stand four and five deep at every register and down every aisle, more carts and drivers negotiate passage. I turn left and follow the perimeter of the store through the produce, past the bakery, to the deli.

This end of the Kroger is empty. From the deli counter I scan the bakery and fresh produce departments. Beyond the bread, a woman peruses wines. She is the only other customer in sight. While my hard salami and smoked gouda are being cut, weighed and wrapped by a young woman who is very confused by my lack of interest in having either sliced, I sort through a rack of fresh bread for a loaf of rosemary and olive oil loaf. Looking one part apologetic and one part confused, the deli worker hands my cuts across the counter and I head for the mustard aisle.

As soon as I round the corner away from all things fresh, a sea of cart jockeys engulfs me. I look back. The south end of the building is still empty. Moving deeper into the crowd, I am surrounded by carts overflowing with all manner of processed, canned and boxed foods.

I wind my way through the crowd until I find the mustard. Accustomed to mustard that is homemade by a dear friend, today I will settle for Jack Daniels brand. At least it is from Tennessee, I think.

As I reach the front of the store, I overhear an express checker turning back a fully loaded cart. I slip in as she turns away, obviously disappointed. The checker has me rung in a matter of seconds. “Please, no bag,” I say as he reaches behind him.

“You sure?”

“Save a plastic tree.”

“Huh? Oh, yeah. Have a good night.”

“Thanks. You too.”

A soft glow from a sun I guess must be over the Pacific warms the horizon as I walk back to the hotel. Sitting in the bed, I  turn on the television—a luxury I only allow on the road. I open my penknife and carve into supper. The sausage and cheese aren’t bad (the mustard makes them a little better)  and the bread is passable, but I miss home.

Morning Dilemma

At 7:00 in the morning, with whippoorwills calling, dew on the grass, hot coffee on my desk and ideas in my head, whether to go for a walk or to continue writing is no easy decision to make. I weigh my options.

Two days ago, about this same time of morning, a light rain falling, I walked the farm to assess the condition of the land post nine inches of tropical depression rain—a gift from the gulf delivered by a storm called “Lee.” On that morning, drainages dry for months surged heavy from overflowing ponds, low spots in the meadows held ankle-deep water, cattle troughs I had not filled in two days sat brimming and untouched. Four large bucks, not yet driven apart by the scents of ready does and still sporting velvet only the largest of the four had begun to scrape, bedded together in the thicket east of the far pond, and bolted at my approach to the shallow ravine and shelter amid the young willows. A kingfisher cackled and hovered over the pond. These things I remember as I sip my cup.

On my computer screen three new documents vie for attention as my thoughts skip and jump: Jeffersonian revolution, my beloved whippoorwills, and random thoughts about late summer crops await coalescence and molding into something resembling a farm newsletter… Precious are these moments when the ideas, plentiful, find words that flow into streams rare and coveted. How easy and luxurious to spend the morning at my little writing desk next to the open window!

The whippoorwill calls again, making my decision. I reach for my jeans, dig for wool not worn in months, and don my hat. Even through my sweater, a slight chill not felt for months greets me at the porch where I sit to lace my boots prompting a smile and silent thanks for the wise counsel of the mysterious, unseen birds.

John, the owner of the seventy acres I temporarily inhabit, having been away during the storm returned last night and joins me on the porch. Glad for his company (and for his early morning coffee making) I am also a little sad that this walk will include conversation certain to be at the same time stimulating and distracting. We begin our walk with a look at recently seeded gardens, now soaked, germinated and sprouting—greens, the great fall harbinger on the southern farm!

Through a paddock heavily rooted by pigs then heavily packed by two horses and a donkey we enter the woods to survey the two large oaks fallen victim to Lee and are pleased to find among the inoculated logs once leaning on the great trunk but now strewn about or pinned beneath the uprooted giant, a single shiitake. I cut free the harvest and pass it to my companion for safekeeping in his vest pocket. We express our gratitude that the trees missed the small cabin nearby and for the season’s firewood so conveniently presented for saw to section and maul to rend before the season turns.

Down the fencerow, a third victim either missed on my previous stroll or having fallen in the day since, rests on stretched but unbroken barbed wire—a gift from the neighbor’s forest to our fuel coffers—more to cut and split and with it fence repairs that must be done before moving the cattle. Noted. We move on.

As we emerge from the canopy at the dam below the shallow east pond, the gentle curve of a horn turning up from leaf litter beneath a young tree catches my attention. I point and John confirms. He put it there, and it is ready. I push aside low branches to retrieve the perfect skull and long horns of Connor, one of his bulls. I shoulder the weighty remains and we cross the dam, stopping to admire the high water and question how long it will last.

Following deer trails around the pond, we stop at the old coyote den. It is impossible for me to visit this part of the farm without a stop here, always with hope of fresh digging or tracks to signal the presence of a new pack. As with other recent examinations, the dirt is untouched and still littered with the curled shells from long-hatched and emerged turtles whose opportunistic mother took advantage of the already disturbed ground for her own purposes. I chuckle but keep to myself thoughts of coyote pups cocking their heads sideways at newborn sliders, as foreign as any alien, appearing at their threshold.

Above the pond, we cross a spongy marsh that last week felt as solid underfoot as the old horse paddock where our walk began. We look for water bubbling from the ground as we climb the other side of the shallow draw that feeds the pond but find none. I pause to shift my load from left shoulder to right, prompting the emergence of long stored information from my Yellowstone days decades ago, that the head of a large male bison can weigh up to three hundred pounds, and wonder the weight of these remains which grow heavier with every step.

It is now a short walk across a pasture with pauses to appreciate abundant emerging clover and discuss the problem of pine bark smoothed by scratching cattle and in need of protection, and back to the house.

I carry Connor to the woodpile and introduce him to Jenny before resting him there, next to his herd mate and matriarch—an homage to the stately highlanders whose lives we endeavored to honor with succulent pastures, shade and abundant fresh water, and whose deaths filled our freezers, plates and bellies—more for which to give thanks on this sacred morning.

Boots left on the porch, my writing time spent, it is time for a shower and a trip to town where after early commitments, if I am lucky, I might find a second cup and a re-tapping into the early morning inspiration abandoned in favor of my walk.