Saturday, January 7, 2017

Loss and Renewal
    “Girls! Girls!” I'd cry as I walked down to the chicken yard with a bowl of rice, the hens' favorite food. And both of them (we were down to just two, through attrition, from a dozen just last year before foxes got to them), the Barred Rock with her grey and black stripes, and the Rhode Island Red with the yellow star on her red chest, would come running towards me. They were so happy  as they followed me into the chicken yard and I laid the rice on the ground and they eagerly started eating. It was our daily routine and it meant so much to the three of us, and now the Rhode Island Red is dead and her sister has no idea where she is and she won't even go into the chicken yard anymore. She no longer roosts in the house at night and I have no idea where she is, except that our routine is gone and will not return. We do have a replacement group of eight hens I bought in early summer to expand the flock but they roost in various trees and not in the chicken house and the rice doesn't mean anything to them. So I must adapt to new ways while missing the moments I had with my two girls.


Three Sisters

    Our three female barn cats died last year. They were each 14 years or older so we knew their time was coming but such loss is always hard because they had been part of our lives for so long. The barn was their home and had been for as long as they lived here.
    Of the three, only Charlotte was born here. Her mother, Blackie, either roamed to the property or was dropped off as so many have been. Once, someone left a box of kittens down along the road but I assumed it was just trash that someone had thoughtlessly thrown away so I didn’t look at it for several days and, by then, the kittens were dead. And so we learn.
    Blackie was pregnant when she came to the Hermitage and soon gave birth to a litter of kittens. However, this was the summer of 2001 when we still let our dogs run loose about the property. One day we heard a commotion near the wood pile and rushed over to find Riker and Shadow had cornered a kitten deep within the wood. We pulled the dogs away - they had already eaten the rest of the kittens - and carefully pulled away the boards so we could gently withdraw the remaining kitten. We put her and her mother in the stable, safely away from the dogs, and they quickly made the barn their home. In the process, they eventually made the barn rat and mouse free, which had long been an issue.
    Boudica showed up shortly thereafter. She was already a young adult. She was very strong, a fearless hunter and had a pink triangle on the tip of her nose, so we named her for the Celtic queen who valiantly fought against the Roman occupation of Britain. She was one tough female.
    I fed the cats over Christian’s objections; he felt they should hunt for their food. I felt their lives were hard enough already and that feeding them would relieve needless pressure to survive. Besides, cats are natural hunters and never lose the, to them, thrill of the chase.
    And so they became part of our lives. In cold weather they stayed inside the barn which, though unheated, at least kept them dry and out of the weather. And there were plenty of places where they could make nests in various straw piles.
    I kept litter boxes filled with sand as I was too cheap to buy Kitty Litter and the cats learned quickly what the boxes were for.
    In warm weather, when I kept the barn door open to the barnyard, the cats came out and laid in the sun, enjoying the warmth of the earth and grass. And that’s how these three cats lived their lives. We finally learned to keep the dogs on tie-out chains so they didn’t bother the cats and, indeed, dogs and cats became familiar with each other and, indeed, we became a family.
    One thinks, incorrectly of course, that such happiness will last forever. On warm summer evenings I tried to take at least a few minutes after the end of my work and before starting supper to lay on the grass where the cats would join me, laying beside or even on me. Those moments were fleeting, special and we wanted them never to end as I would look high above to see blue sky with clouds drifting lazily by and the occasional bird flying by.
    But years pass and we age. The cats began to slow down but there was nothing apparently wrong with them except so many years and the gradually wearing down and wearing out of the machine. Still, it was a surprise to come down one morning to begin my chores and find Boudica dead on the grass. She came out of the barn to die. Her passing did not seem painful, fortunately. It was as though she simply expired.
    Charlotte’s death, however, was disconcerting and needless though she, too, had become feeble and walking was difficult for her. Somehow she got caught in the summer house with the dogs. She rarely tried to go into the summer house and I always caught her and put her outside. This time, however, I hadn’t noticed her going inside but the dogs found her and she must have panicked, which sets off their killing instant, because she was dead when Christian found her. There were no wounds on her body so she may have had a heart attack.
    A mother never wants to outlive a child but now Blackie, and old and feeble as she was, was alone. On summer days she still walked, unsteadily, into the barnyard to lay in the sun. By now other cats had come to live on the property but none of them lived in the barn, where Blackie was the sole resident.
    By now we had turned the barn into a local-history museum and folk art center. I was working on a project and sitting on the floor when Blackie walked right into me, and that’s when I realized she was blind. I also realized she was dying. My heart broke because she was the oldest of all the animals who had lived at the Hermitage. She was a link to a time that was gone and to an earlier Hermitage that no longer existed.
    I laid beside her on the floor and she curled up beside me. I held her close and we stayed together for some time before she wandered off. I heard her bumping into the furniture as she made her unsteady way across the barn, and then she was gone. I assumed she went outside to die, as our cats usually do.
    It was sometime later when I found her body in a corner of the barn, her home and where she wanted to die.
    We buried all three in our cemetery, wrapping all three in beautiful Indian silks and costume jewelry. Over each grave I put a large, heavy flagstone so they would not be disturbed. They are together in death as they were in life.
    I had kept their food bowls near the barn door and they quickly learned as young cats that they would get fed whenever I went into the barn. I always kept food in their bowls so they could actually eat whenever they wished but the sight of me going into the barn always caused them to follow me inside and each would crouch at the bowls and begin eating. It was a predictable ritual that we followed daily for years. I never thought those days would end and now they were gone forever. Sleep well, my girls. You are forever with me.


    I knew Bowser was blind the moment I saw his eyes. It was early morning and I was awakened by the sound of a barking dog outside, rare because my dog was with me and Zephram’s dog was down with him.
    I opened the door and there he was, wandering back and forth, not knowing where he was and walking into shrubs and trees. I immediately named him Bowser and realized someone had dropped him off, someone for whom Bowser had become too much to handle and who thought the Hermitage would be the best place for him. But I also immediately knew we could not handle another dog because the two we have are highly strung and overly sensitive. They cannot share their respective humans with another dog.
    We decided the only thing to do was to take him to a no-kill shelter. We found one, where the staff was not pleased at yet another dog to feed and place. A quick inspection also revealed what I had not noticed, that he had advanced testicular cancer, with a huge lump on his scrotum. He needed treatment so a vet was called and preparations were made to take Bowser immediately over for an examination.
    I never saw him again and made no effort to find out what happened to him, whether he was treated or put to sleep. By giving him away as he had been given to us, Bowser was out of my life. Still, it was a horrible decision to have to make and even harder to deal with as I felt so sorry for him, blind, lost, afraid. A terrible situation for which I saw no other option. Rarely have I felt so helpless. He was a remarkably sweet and trusting dog living in a very dark world. He needed love and care and I could provide neither. This knowledge is my penance for not doing more. The sound of a barking dog woke me up that morning and I had no idea it would end so tragically.   

The Fox

    Foxes and coyotes have taken a toll on our helpless birds this year, our ducks, geese, chickens and turkeys. In a particularly brazen attack, coyotes came right into the barnyard and pulled a turkey hen right off the gate where she was roosting. I found her gutted remains the next morning across the road by following a trail of feathers.
    By late October we had a trapper setting out traps but it was too late for those we had lost and I won’t replenish our stock until late spring. I only hope our remaining birds last through the winter.
    One day as I was driving back to the Hermitage, I saw a fox on the dam across the road. This was odd because they usually hunt at night and are rarely seen. I assumed it was an old fox, probably mangy and wormy and desperate for food. It may have been the same fox our dogs corralled a couple of days later as I was walking them up along the line and had let them run free for the exercise. Sometimes they find a groundhog or a klatch of baby rabbits but this day was different. What they found was fighting back as a blur of red and I knew they had found a fox, whose fangs, claws and aggressiveness could do real damage to our dogs. I ran to a nearby rock pile and brought two good-sized rocks as weapons while yelling to the dogs to move away, which they were only too glad to do.
    The terrified fox was indeed old, mangy and scrawny but still a good fighter and was dangerous because it was fighting for its life. I stoned the fox to death as quickly as I could. As with Bowser, I cursed fate for putting me in this situation and having to take this creature’s life. I yelled at the dogs to go on and they continued their run while I threw the lifeless body over the fence where they couldn’t get to it. They eagerly moved on to their next adventure. I found it harder to forget the staring eyes of a creature who only wanted to be left alone so it could continue killing our birds. What a life.

The heron and the catfish

    A heron visits the pond every spring summer when the water warms up and the catfish emerge from their winter hibernation in the mud and begin swimming again. She flies in low, her wide wings slowly flapping and she gently lands on the dam. Standing on her long legs, which bend backwards from ours at the knees, she waits patiently at the water‘s edge for a catfish to move near enough for her to stab with her long spear of a beak. When she is lucky and she catches a fish, if it is small enough, she swallows it whole. If it is larger, she typically takes it away from the pond so it will not escape. back into the water. Then she uses her beak as a knife to repeatedly slash at the fish and pull it apart into edible pieces.
    This year she learned something different because she quickly noticed how I came down every afternoon with a bucket of food to feed the catfish. The food is small pellets that float on the surface and the catfish swim to the surface, hungrily swarming, dozens of them, frothing about in the water to eat every pellet. The water around the dock where I stand boils with their bodies. The heron watched this and I could imagine her thinking to herself, “How does he do that? He brings them all to the surface while I have to stand here and wait for the occasional fish to swim by.”
    Sometimes she remains at the far edge of the pond while I feed the catfish. Other times she flies a short distance away to watch me until I’ve fed the catfish, bringing them to the surface. “For me?” I can hear the heron asking. “Yes, for you,” I reply.
    Being a bird of opportunity, as soon as I leave the dock, she begins flying over to stand on the dock herself or else lands in the shallows by the dock and often, with seconds, has a fish which she  proceeds to rip apart and eat.
    This puts me in the odd position of being her procurer: by feeding the catfish and keeping them alive, I also offer them up to her so, by their death, she can live. It is a queasy relationship, yet my heart goes out to her. She only has one way of living, spearing fish with her beak. That’s how nature has designed her; she has no options. And it’s a hard-knock life for her; there are days she has flown away hungry, with nothing to eat, to try her luck at another place along the creek.
    Even the catfish have grown familiar with her lurking over the edge of the dock. They can see her by looking up through the water and so they often remain down below and sometimes refuse to come up to feed even when I throw food on the surface for them. At such times, when nothing is feeding, I look across the pond to the heron waiting expectantly for them to rise and I say, “Not today, girl.” She will still fly over and assume her position of huntress. Sometimes she still finds an unsuspecting fish but sometimes she doesn’t and so eventually leaves. But the catfish can only go for so long without eating and, when hungry enough, they eventually come to the surface and there she is, waiting for them.
      The heron and I have unexpectedly bonded, bird and human. She knows me and will allow me to come remarkably close, but not too close. She has her space and if I enter it, she flies away with slow, loping flaps of her wings. I like to see her at the pond and I like the idea that I can play some role in keeping her alive. There are few things worse for any creature than to be hungry, starving hungry, with no idea as to when or where she will eat again.
    As I write this, it is early November. The temperature of the pond water has cooled considerably and the catfish have once again buried themselves in the mud at the bottom of the pond for their long winter hibernation when they slow their body activity to a minimum and simply wait for spring’s warmth. The heron has left for the season. I have seen other herons here in the middle of winter, along the creek when it isn’t frozen over, waiting, waiting, for something to swim by so they can eat. So I don’t know if this heron stays or leaves. In any case, if she survives the winter, I will look for her next year, when it’s warm, when the catfish rise to the surface, when I begin feeding them again and when our connection continues.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Life and Death at the Hermitage

The mother duck hatched her baby in one of the brooder hutches two feet off the floor of the chicken house so his first step was a doozy. Mom was the first and, so far, only duck to ever nest there. Our hens do it all the time but there she was, the first morning I saw her, with her yellow bill protruding from the front of the hutch and just looking at me as if to say, "Don't bother me; I'm busy." And she remained there for the four weeks it took to incubate her egg. She only had one duck egg under her and two unfertile chicken eggs but she remained there day after day after day. I couldn't see how this could end well but she was determined.

Finally one day I looked into the chicken house and she had left the hutch and was standing on the floor. Her child was beside her, laying on his side, cold, wet, barely alive having survived hatching and then the fall. I couldn't leave him there to die so I picked him up even though Mom went wild as I took the fruit of her labor away. She squawked and squawked and I knew the loss would be hard on her but I also knew a dead duckling was not the answer. I took him to the attic of the summer house where I had a large metal tub with a heat lamp overhead and plenty of food and water. I carefully dried the young fellow off. His yellow down was matted to his body. I turned on the heat lamp and laid him on fresh, dry newspaper and left him to see what would happen.

I came back an hour later and he was standing, dry, fluffy and living. I gave him his first taste of water and food. I knew he would be lonely but he was also alive. His mother was still frantic but within a day or two she had resolved that her child was gone and so she resigned herself by moving on with her life.

Over the next few weeks the duckling grew and grew. Morning and afternoon I picked him up to stimulate him. He hated it and squirmed to get away but I knew the stimulation was good for him. Otherwise, all he could do hour after hour was just sit there and look at the metal walls of his tub. Finally, when he grew large enough, I moved him into the brooder house where we keep birds until they are large to survive on their own.

His mother was trying again with a new batch of eggs, this time under one of the buildings, but it was getting late in the season and I knew they had little hope for survival once they hatched.

After several more weeks, her child was ready for the pond so I picked him up and carried him to the water. He was not happy at being transported this way. I walked onto the dock, held him in both hands and then tossed him into the air. He finally discovered what wings and webbed feet were for as he frantically flapped until splashing into the water and quickly began paddling around. He even dove under the water. Meanwhile, the other birds went wild, especially the geese as they squawk at any intrusion into their territory and they rushed over to let him know he was not welcome. So he raced to the edge of the pond and climbed onto the bank where he started preening himself. There was corn nearby where I toss it on the ground so he had plenty to eat. Now he was large enough to fend off most nighttime predators and he quickly learned the value of staying near the other birds.

Now, months later, he is fully grown and is too heavy to run around as he did during the summer when he avidly chased grasshoppers across the pasture and gobbled them up. Now he's more sedate. His mother did lose all of her next batch of babies. She had fifteen and each day there were one or two fewer until all of them were gone. While I'd like to blame foxes and racoons, I'm afraid our cats ate most of them.

People rightly think life is hard in the human world but it's infinitely scarier and tougher in nature's realm. Still, the duckling who nearly died is now an adult and he's happy and his story of survival is a gift.
Death at the Hermitage
Mutt and Jeff are done. Our team of turkey toms is broken up. A fox dragged Jeff across the road last night. At least I think it was Jeff; I never could really tell them apart. This morning, I saw the place where the fox and Jeff fought it out and Jeff had his last stand. It wasn’t pretty; the site, down near the pond, was covered with feathers and the snow was splattered with blood.
Mutt and Jeff were two of our Royal Palm turkeys, notable for the distinctive deep blue markings on their tail feathers. When the tail feathers fan out, the blue forms a semi-circular stripe in stark contrast with the white.
Normally, one of them stayed inside the chain-link fence surrounding the chicken yard while the other stayed outside. Through sad and painful experience, they realized that being together was no good because then they could really hurt each other in their competitive frenzy. When that did happen, I often had to forcibly remove one from the other when their raging hormones took control and they started pecking and clawing each other.
No, the fence provided a safety net. With it, they could glare at each other without really being hurt or hurting, which I thought was quite wise.
They spent hours playing a game best called “Anything you can do I can do better.” If Mutt raised his head high, so would Jeff. If Mutt lowered his head, so would Jeff. They strutted back and forth along the length of the fence, as though they wanted to get at each other and take the other one out. At night, when it was roosting time, they inevitably ended up side by side on the fence. But come daylight, they were back at it, puffing out their feathers and dragging the tips of their wing feathers on the ground which made a distinctive grating sound in vain attempts to intimidate each other. At such times, they looked like mirror images of each other as they walked back and forth, back and forth along the fence.
Their copycat behavior reminded me of the old “I Love Lucy” episode when the Ricardo family visited Hollywood and Lucy met Harpo Marx. She put on a duplicate Harpo costume with his distinctive coat and slouchy top hat while the two comedians did a vaudeville-type mirror routine where each imitated the other’s movements as though one was standing before a mirror. The idea was to see who could trick the other into making the first mistake.
I always wanted to make a video of the Mutt and Jeff show. I think it could have been a hit on YouTube. But I kept putting it off and now, as with so many things in life, it’s too late.
I walk through the snow and pick up the body. As typical of a fox attack, the head was gone and the fox had also eaten a large piece of the breast. We’ve had really cold weather and snow lately so wild animals are frightened for their survival, which makes them take chances they normally avoid in warm weather, like coming among the farm buildings. And since there are already intimations of spring, it’s possible the fox was a mother with babies to feed.
I put Jeff’s body into the back of the pickup and drive to the bend in the lane where it begins to rise towards the main road. The swale comes close to the road at that point, with the ground dropping sharply down to the creek. This is where I put our dead animals and birds (except the dogs and cats, who have their own cemetery). There are many bones down there from many creatures going back many years. Of course, wild animals take many of the carcasses away and that’s fine, they can be recycled to keep other creatures alive.
As I lift the body out of the back, I feel Kali’s presence. The Hindu goddess of death is never far away when one lives close to nature. More than an occasional visitor, yet not quite a family member, she is more like the next door neighbor who always comes over in an emergency. Kali is always ready, like now, to start her dance. As her consort, Shiva has his dance of life while Kali has her dance of death. Yet I don’t think she’s happy when a creature dies; I think she dances because that’s her job, it’s what she does. It’s as though she is acknowledging an existence and its passing and its transformation into something else, a return to its home, to the spirit from whence it emerged and into which it has merged again.
Kali and I know each other well by now, which is odd because I really didn’t know her at all before moving here in 1988 to create the Hermitage. Oh, I had known death, I had seen death, but I had never related it specifically to her before. Now her image is constantly before me at times like this as I mourn the loss of our dearly beloved turkey. He was a sweet, innocent soul despite the times he wanted to get at his dance partner on the other side of the fence and rip him open. But that was hormonal rage. No, when he was calm, he was sweet and, in any case, he could do little to defend himself against a creature who really wanted to kill him. He lived a peaceful, secure and bountiful life right to the end, and if the end was terrifying, so it is for many of us.
As I toss the body towards the bottom of the slope, I say aloud, “Rest in peace, sweet child.” All of our creatures are sweet, even the farm cats whose idea of a good time is to torture a field mouse until they finally get bored and kill it. But that’s what they, like foxes, do.
We have purposefully tried to make the Hermitage into a New Jerusalem, without the Christian connotations, a place where earth and spirit can unite and heal each other. The idealistic “Peaceable Kingdom” paintings of Quaker artist Edward Hicks show the lion laying down with the lamb and the child holding the snake. Those are crucial images to us and while they may not come literally true in my lifetime, I hold out the promise that they could be true someday.
Still, we cannot always make it so as the death of Jeff reminds me. At times like these, nature thrusts itself upon us and Kali dances again. We cannot always protect our children from the vagaries of the world, no matter how much we wish we could.
I drive back to the barnyard. In the ensuing days, I miss Jeff terribly. The lack of his presence leaves a hole in the fabric of the Hermitage. Mutt has no one with whom to compete.
Then one day I return after some hours of being away. I pull in, get out and stop at what I am seeing. A first-year Bourbon Red male turkey is on one side of the chicken-yard fence while Mutt is at his station on the inside. And the Bourbon Red is mimicking Mutt; when Mutt raises his head, the Bourbon Red raises his; when Mutt lowers his head, the Bourbon Red lowers his. And what about the dance? Sure enough, Mutt struts up and down on one side of the fence, the Bourbon Red struts up and down on the other side, a new team is doing the old routine.
It is humbling to know that life continues, that Jeff is dead but his role remains, now played by a new actor. I feel Kali looking at me, and she is smiling.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Our Trip to Morocco

We decided to go to Morocco, our first time to Africa, because it’s the most exotic place we could find within a seven hour flight from New York. We had originally wanted to go to the islands of Mauritius and Reunion in the Indian Ocean but realized we could not handle the 14 hour plane flight. But that was fine because we fell in love with Morocco, with its people and with the country. Both are incredibly beautiful. And we can say that after being assaulted and robbed in Fez. Even that disaster turned out well because we ended up leaving the next morning and so had an extra day in Casablanca which we spent seeing the Hassan II mosque, the third largest in the world, and the beach, which was fabulous. Plus we finally had the seafood dinner for which we’d been looking for days.

Plus the robbery showed us what a land of contrasts Morocco actually is. We spent 10 days in Morocco. We left our beloved dogs at the winter house, cared for by a friend. We knew that would be the least stressful alternative for them. At least they were in a place they knew and their only job, which they do well, was to wait for our return. And if there were times when I started to wonder if we would ever return to America, the fact is that we did.

I used the Lonely Planet guide to Morocco to plan the trip and it was the perfect guide book because it told so much about what to expect. For example it warned not to mail post cards from Mohammed V airport outside Casablanca because they never get delivered; the stamps are steamed off and sold on the black market. So we found other places to mail them; hopefully they will reach their intended recipients.

But even Lonely Planet was not always accurate. For example it didn’t warn us that Fez is a very risky, dangerous city. I’m glad we saw it because we saw some of the most beautiful examples of Islamic architecture in the world, but it’s also a city of extreme poverty, extreme overpopulation and, therefore, extreme desperation of a kind we did not see any place else. The differences between Meknes and Fez, less than 50 kilometers apart, could not be more striking. Meknes is a city of artisans where many people are engaged in an amazing variety of crafts. You walk through medieval alleys and find tailors sitting cross-legged sewing away; or people making ribbon; bakers using ancient beehive ovens built into the ground floor of their houses; metalworkers making Damascene pieces, tapping thin strands of silver into incised lines on iron; wood workers making doors and windows by hand or making beautiful inlaid boxes. Plus Meknes has cats, lots and lots of cats, most of whom love to be touched. The cats immediately made me feel right at home. Fez has no cats and I knew something was wrong when I realized that. Then I saw boxes of kittens being sold to be raised for meat and I finally realized what an evil city it was, even before we were robbed. I’m amazed we made it out alive. Plus the merchants will not leave you alone. As a tourist they see you as a walking ATM machine and they will literally try and pull you into their shops. This is how we were robbed because we stopped to look at some tribal robes and bought one, showing where we kept our money, and one of the men in the shop followed us, waiting for the right moment to attack us and take our money. Fortunately our passports and credit cards were kept hidden. Again, we didn’t have that happen any other place. The other cities we visited all had merchants selling their wares, traditional and modern, but none had the air of desperation that those in Fez had. And the population is only increasing so I don’t see anything good coming out of that situation.

The first place we visited was Rabat, the capital, though there isn’t a capital building as such. Morocco is ruled by a king, a greatly beloved king evidently. His picture is everywhere, much as Queen Victoria’s must have been in her time. The usual picture shows him in a suit, tie and solid gold Rolex (I’m assuming it’s solid gold; he’s evidently wealthy enough to afford many of them) looking very uneasy with a rather tight smile. He was born in 1963 and became king in the late 1990s. His wife is an engineer. They have two children, a boy and a girl. One often sees photographs of the royal family, also the king in his Berber robes (his mother is a Berber from the High Atlas mountains) and the king with his hunting rifle kneeling over some dead animal he’s shot.

Despite talking with dozens of people on our trip, no one mentioned the king until our very last day when our hosts talked briefly about him. However Moroccans are very proud of their country. One man said the country is stable (a very important asset in the Near and Middle East right now), prosperous, with plenty of food for its people. Unfortunately the unemployment is high, especially among the young, and all of the young people we met want to come to America. One young woman, a college student, said that as a single woman she comes under a lot of pressure to get married and to wear a head covering and she wants to get away from those pressures by being in America.

Casablanca, as the most cosmopolitan city in Morocco and its financial center, had by far the fewest number of women wearing any kind of hair covering, probably one in two had nothing on their heads. But then we saw young women in their teens even wearing veils. I rode back on the plane to New York next to a mother and her daughter from Guinea. The mother wore a veil with only an eye slit. She lifted it up with one hand to eat or, when she used both hands to eat, she unhooked one side and briefly hooked it on the other before quickly pulling it back across her face. Her daughter had a head covering but no veil. I was wondering how they were going to make it in New York but at the baggage claim I saw there was a woman in blue jeans with them.

A woman in her 50s said things were more liberal when she was growing up but in recent decades there has been a rise in religious conservatism and pressure to go back to more traditional ways of dressing.

Hearing the meuzzin giving the call to prayer five times a day from the minarets around us was something to get used to. There were usually several mosques around us so you heard the call in stereophonic sound. Yet after a few days we were so used to them that we didn’t even notice them and when we returned here I found I missed their plaintive cries.

We were outside one of the main mosques downtown in Rabat when government and military personnel poured out of their office buildings, bringing their prayer rugs to the mosque across the street from us. It was amazing to watch these men from many walks of life in what must be one of the most democratic moments in the Moslem world, when side by side they bow towards Mecca. We were standing with some women and I saw one young mother with a baby asking for alms. I gave her a coin and instantly the other women approached me with their hands out all asking for money. I felt overwhelmed and fled the scene.

One must decide how to deal with beggars in Morocco. We didn’t find many of them; the most noted ones are the blind men who shout of verses from the Koran. There were also those with various kinds of birth defects and disfigurements. I was struck by how many people gave alms to the beggars. It certainly puts America to shame. Upon our return we were taking the subway to the bus station in New York when a homeless man came through asking for money and only one young woman gave him something; even I looked away.

I decided to give money to the elderly and to women with babies. It helps to have a pocketful of change and change was not always easy to come by. Money changers had large bills to exchange for dollars; never small bills or coins. The dirham is the Moroccan equivalent of the dollar and eight dirhams equals a dollar. The common coins are five and 10 dirhams though there are also single dirhams and even smaller coins because the dirham is made of 100 centimes and we did see some 20 centime coins. Five and 10 dirham coins are good to have for tips and alms.

The Lonely Planet book had said no one does anything in Morocco without expecting a tip and that was generally the case. We were helped at times when we didn’t even want to be helped. In Fez we left the huge, new beautiful train station to find a cab to our hotel. I just put my luggage down for a second when a man picked both pieces up and put them in a cab for me then held out his hand. I gave him 5 dirhams then got in and shut the door. He wanted more and held out his hand. Fortunately the window was up so I could ignore him. The guide book had said it was common for such touts as they are called to give you the “You can’t be serious” look at such times and the appropriate rejoinder is to give them back the “That’s more than you’re worth” look. This is why the right guide book is so handy.

We realized early on that everyone in every place we were staying expected to get something, at least as we were leaving, so it helped to have a wad of low denomination bills at such times. But it worked out well because it seemed that the kitchen help for example rarely got anything and in the places we stayed there were only two or three people on staff anyway. We only stayed in a real hotel in Rabat. In Fez and Meknes we stayed in riads, once grand homes belonging to bureaucrats or wealthy merchants and now converted into guest houses. They are generally about 200 years old and built on the classical Arab style of a central, open-air courtyard with rooms on several levels. In Meknes we were lucky enough to actually have a room on the roof-top terrace overlooking the old city and the nouvelle citie of the French occupation.

In Morocco, unlike Tunisia and Algeria, enlightened leadership by the French secretary-general in charge of the country prohibited the wholesale destruction of the old, walled cities and, instead, the French built brand new cities for French residents nearby. This prevented a lot of bad feelings against the French that they evidently earned in other North African countries.

Throughout the trip I read Edith Wharton’s In Morocco, which she wrote in 1918 just after the end of the First World War. She was evidently not only the first American woman but actually the first American to see many parts of Morocco that, until quite recently, had been forbidden to infidels (especially female infidels) to see. She never says why she went to Morocco but obviously she had a fascination with Arab culture. Also she was so well known as a prominent American author that she was accorded access at the very highest levels of Moroccan society by her friendship with French Gen. Lyautey, who was, in effect, the French ruler of Morocco.

According to Wharton, it was the Sultan of Fez who, trying to preserve his throne in the fact of wide-spread opposition, asked the French to, basically, take over the country while maintaining him as the ostensible native ruler. However, in typical Moroccan fashion, a powerful new warlord appeared and the Sultan decided to go with him instead of the French, but it was too late, the document was signed and the Sultan has evidently gone down in infamy for letting the French into the country.

However, in retrospect it was as important for Morocco’s future to have the French administer the country as it was for India to have the English, and for similar reasons. The French language provided a lingua franca by itself that proceeded to unite the country and still does, though Moroccan Arabic continues to be the primary language and Berber a major secondary language. Still, it seemed that most people, at least those involved with the tourist trade in some way, know French and fortunately even our weak knowledge of French made it possible to tour the country. I knew enough to ask questions but found it difficult to understand conversations between Moroccans or to understand those conversing with us who assumed we knew more French than we actually did.

Also the French provided technical training for government bureaucrats (French is still the main language for business, culture, education and government); they started building asphalt roads during World War I and also started the country’s magnificent railroad system. They also literally turned the desert green. Wharton mentions the desert started at Rabat, which is right on the coast. These days we traveled 100 kilometers inland and never saw the desert. It was spring; the land was green or colored with wild flowers; we passed through planted forests and literally hundreds of olive groves. And it was all started by the French who used Morocco as a food basket to supply its armies and citizens during World War I. Of course the Moroccans themselves continued and expanded the project after independence in 1956 when the French farmers had to leave. Evidently most of the French left then because antique stores in Meknes, Rabat and Casablanca are filled with stunning examples of fine French antiques. I even saw the stall of a yogurt seller in Meknes who had several beautiful examples of French mantel clocks on display next to his yogurt bowls.

Wharton saw Morocco in transition and we followed, by chance, most of her own tour except for Marrakesh which we did not have time to see. She saw harems, eunuchs, slaves from central Africa, sultans, viziers and all the trappings and traditions of an ancient monarchy. She also saw collections of clocks in ancient palaces (most of which she says did not work or were never kept wound), harem wives wearing fine French dresses, a sultan who used a telephone and a civilization that ranged from the barbaric to the exquisite, often at the same time.

Just six years before her arrival, the natives of Fez rose up and killed all the Europeans in the city. While the French army was superior to the basically amateur native Moroccan armies, General Lyautey told Wharton that the way to win the country was by recognizing and encouraging the best it had to offer: “A craft shop is worth more than a battalion,” he told her. And yes, it is true that French is the language of the Colonial oppressor but it’s also true that the French left Morocco without the revolution that rocked Algeria for years.

The current king, who is both leader of the country and of the military, was trained both as a lawyer and as an Army officer. After a spate of suicide bombings in Casablanca in 2003 by unemployed youths who lived in shantytowns that ringed the city, the king ordered the slums demolished and replaced with modern apartment buildings. Of course he owned the construction companies that built the apartment buildings.

When Moroccans were faced with an unexpected situation, or with something that was not working properly or on time, they just looked at us, shrug and say, “It’s Africa,” which seemed to explain just about everything.

As a person whose introduction to Arabic culture came primarily from “A Thousand and One Nights,” and who read many short stories about Moroccan daily life, beliefs, traditions and attitudes before the trip, I was acquainted with the native belief in djinns, genies, as part of pre-Moslem belief that remains within the culture but not prominently and not publicly. When we were at the beach at Ain Diab outside Casablanca on our last day, I spoke with a young university student who asked if I knew any Arabic and I showed her the index cards written with Arabic phrases on one side and their English translations on the other. She went through the cards, sometimes changing the spelling of various words which I thought was interesting because it indicated to me that Moroccan Arabic is primarily an oral language without standardized spelling since I picked the words out of a Moroccan language book. Then she came to the word “djinn” and was stumped by it. She said it several times aloud then she realized what it meant and looked in shock at me: “Ghosts?” she asked. “Why are you interested in ghosts?” And the tip of the iceberg that is pre-Muslim belief opened for me just for a moment.

It was amazing to see just how sophisticated and slick tour guides could be at getting us on tours whether we wanted them or not. This first happened to us at Chellah, an area of Roman and early Moslem ruins just outside the city walls of Rabat. We were having trouble understanding how much the entrance fee was (turns out the entrance fee to every site in the country seems to be 10 dirhams). A very helpful young man with a shoulder bag explained the price and then proceeded to show us around, explaining trees and plants (the first papyrus we’d ever seen growing), birds, the Roman ruins, the Moslem ruins, and we quite quickly realized we were taking the tour without asking how much he wanted. Turns out the tour was quite interesting; his English was good and he showed us things we never would have known on our own. And fortunately he did not take us at the end when he certainly could have done so. He charged a very fair price (according to our guide book) and then let us tour on our own.

It was only as we were leaving that he became annoying as he opened up his shoulder bag (the standard armament of tour guides) because that was where he had his souvenirs for sale. In his case, he was selling fake amber and silver jewelry. He insisted the obviously plastic stones were real by lighting his cigarette lighter and putting the flame near the “stones” but we weren’t interested. Then he became quite demanding, saying he was a student and needed money for classes, a classic ploy we later learned. Then he said he had a little baby at home and needed money for his child. By this time we were out in the parking lot frantically looking for a cab to take us back downtown. He followed us across the lot, now practically yelling at us about his “bebe” and it wasn’t until we started walking back to town that he finally left us.

We had another interesting guide at Volubilis, the UNESCO World Heritage site 25 kilometers outside Meknes. We had already paid for a guide at the adjacent town of Moulay Idriss and he was well worth it. He also showed us things we never would have found on our own, including a baker plying his trade and a breath-taking view from the top of the town. He had traditional cloth caps in his shoulder bag and we ended up buying several for each of us. He was so happy he actually gave us some free postcards and he was also very fair in his charge. Once again we had neglected to ask in advance how much the tour would be.

At Volubilis we had decided not to use a guide because we had a map of the ruins and they seemed to be self-explanatory anyway. We had seen a young man near the Arc de Triomphe of the emperor Caracalla giving tours to various groups. Christian sat near the arch doing sketches and I thought we would be left gratefully alone, which we were for about an hour. But then the young man came over, ostensibly to watch Christian sketching but quite soon he asked if we wanted to see the mosaics, which are fabulous but roped off to prevent tourists from walking on them. Well, he did not hesitate to let us past the ropes and, yes, we were careful not to step on the 2,000 year old mosaics. Still, it was wonderful to see them up close and he also took us to places we would not have seen on our own. Once again we had not asked for a price and when the tour was done I gave him a 50 dirham bill. It wasn’t enough to satisfy him, however; he said he wanted 100 dirhams. So Christian pulled out a 100 dirham bill but I held out my hand to get back the 50. However it had already gone down deep inside his pocket and I knew we would never see it again. Then he took the 100 dirham bill and put it deep down the same pocket, telling us to think of it as a souvenir. I did think of it, but not in the way he suggested.

But there were unexpected times of surprising generosity. When we were dropped off at the gate to the Meknes medina, not knowing where our guest house was, a man we asked for directions told his son to take us there and when the lad showed us where the house was, I held out a coin to him but he refused to take it. I thought that was quite amazing.

Also in Meknes, we decided to see the agricultural fair which was being held at a convention center next to Morocco’s version of West Point. The cab driver had a meter but when we reached the center and I asked how much the fare was, he said it was free. Well, driving a cab is his job and we insisted on paying him but the thought was really kind.

We met many people who were very concerned at what we thought of their country: “Do you like Morocco?” we were asked time and time again and they were always pleased and proud when we told them how much we loved Morocco.

The agricultural fair was said to be the largest held on the continent and it gave the regions of Morocco a chance to show what they grow and make. We were interested primarily in the livestock and particularly in the camels but we saw birds and animals from all over Africa. Most of the visitors seemed to be from Morocco but some were obviously from other countries as well.
Our falling for the tour guide ploy went exactly according to our guide book. So did our experience with the carpet salesman. Now we had no intention of buying a carpet, which automatically eliminated about half of the stores we saw. It seemed like nearly everyone was selling what was purported to be hand woven Moroccan rugs. Well, we didn’t care and we successfully avoided all carpet salesmen until Meknes when the museum we wanted to see was closed and a man came across the street to explain it was a holy day and the museum would not be open until the following day. However, he knew of a place just as good as a museum where we could see all kinds of great Berber objects. Fine, so we followed him to what turned out to be a store probably run by the uncle of a nephew of a brother-in-law’s stepson. And the whole experience went just as the guide book said it would. The smiling, obsequious salesman who had his assistant serve us hot mint tea while the main man explained how young women wove these rugs for their wedding day using natural dyes and herbs they found on the hillsides near their rugged mountain villages. And every design had a specific meaning and every rug was hand knotted on a vertical loom. Blah blah blah. So he and his assistant pulled out rug after carefully folded rug, carefully unfolding each one and many of them were absolutely spectacular. And he had an answer for every question. Can’t take it home with you? We ship! And we’re trustworthy; look at this book of orders. Why, just this week we’ve sent rugs to Venice, Italy and Mobile, Alabama. Having been raised in Mobile, I had never thought of it and Venice in the same sentence but there you go. The rugs are too expensive? We have rugs in every price range. Though probably none in the “Free” range, I thought. Are these rugs too large? We have rugs as small as a square meter.

The only reply for which he had no response was “No,” and we had to say it repeatedly. Just let me give you a quote, he said. No, we said. Our prices are negotiable. No, we said. Can we look around the store? Because by that time I was wondering how to get out of the back room in which we were located. Of course, he said. I had already decided to buy something, anything, just to give him some money for his time. So we found some beautiful, and relatively cheap, Damascene jewelry which he didn’t mind selling us but even then he kept trying to get us back into the rear carpet part of the store. By this time Christian had already worked his way out into the street and I, too, kept saying, “No, thank you. No, thank you” until I, too, was back in the street and we were finally able to flee. As I said, the whole thing was the stereotypical carpet seller’s spiel but I did realize one thing, that when we return and we go into the High Atlas Mountains, I want to find one of the women’s cooperatives mentioned in the guide book and buy a rug from a weaver who actually makes them. I just hope they ship.

As I said earlier, we were able to use French instead of Arabic most of the time. On the rare occasions when we found ourselves with a merchant (usually an older man) who spoke no French, he would find a nearby, French-speaking merchant to help him out. But one, absolutely magic word the guide book said to learn is “La,” which means “No” in Moroccan Arabic. It indeed worked wonders. When a bunch of kids surrounded us begging for coins, we said “La” and they were so surprised we knew anything in Arabic that they vanished. Just as the guide book said they would. When a tout approached us at a gate into the Fez medina and wanted to guide us, I said “La” and he was so surprised that he started screaming at us: “La! La! La!” as he vanished into the Fez maze. But we weren’t always negative. “Shukran,” “blessings onto you,” was always received with great and pleasing surprise. At least we didn’t always have to use the language of the colonial oppressors.

We met a man from Bangladesh riding next to us on the train leaving Fez. He was a manager of a textile plant who said rising labor costs in China have made Morocco one of the hot new places for apparel manufacturers. A textile worker in Morocco makes 1,600 dirhams, about $200, a month and fully one-fourth of the country’s industry is based on textiles. Indeed, Morocco is known as the knock-off capital of the world. Gucci, Calvin Klein, Yves Saint-Laurent and Chanel are just some of the names sold on everything in the market places from hand bags to scarves. And all of them are fake. The man from Bangladesh hated Fez, where he had his textile mill, which simply endeared him to us. He was going to Rabat to see about moving his factory there.

The food was one of the great aspects of visiting Morocco. Everything was spiced but subtly and not with a heavy hand. Cumin, coriander, paprika, tumeric and saffron are among the most popular spices and they are sold in the markets in huge, colorful piles in varying shades of red and yellow. We also saw fresh fish being sold in the sun without ice to cool them off. Plus there were the butcher shops with camel heads stuck on posts. We ate as little meat as possible but even salads often had some kind of mystery meat on them. We decided it was better not to ask just what kind of meat we were served though camel, goat and mutton are the most prevalent varieties.

Baked goods of all kinds were our passion. Wonderful breads, better than anything we’ve had in France, were common and cheap and always made in wood-fired ovens. Cookies of all kinds were also plentiful and cheap. But it was the fruit we found most exciting. Orange trees are common even in the cities and oranges were in season. It had been decades since we’d last had tree-ripened oranges and juice stands are very common, featuring a variety of locally-raised fruits. Strawberries were also in season, heaping mounds of strawberries on tables in the markets. Sellers picked them up by the handful and the only thing holding us back from buying them was the question of just where those hands had been. Still, we had strawberry juice several times and it was always fabulous. One is asked whether you want the base to be made with milk or orange juice and the one time we forgot to specify orange juice we ended up with an odd frappe of milk and fruit.

The two main Moroccan dishes are couscous, typically available primarily on Fridays, and tajines, a kind of stew cooked by steaming in its own covered redware pot with a distinctive conical lid. The baking pot is also the serving bowl. We had a chicken tajine one evening and it was just spiced chicken and potatoes with a large variety of wonderful olives. Couscous, tiny balls of boiled and delicately flavored wheat flour, typically had a variety of vegetables and mystery meat. They seem much heavier in America.

Water was a worry but all restaurants serve bottled water. We had no problem with water until our last day in Casablanca when we picked up some kind of bacteria just from washing and rinsing our mouths. Fortunately the results were mild and didn’t start until we were back home.

Taxis were our principal mode of transportation when walking was too far. There are two types of cabs: small Peugeots and Renaults for in-town service and large Mercedes (always silver) for out-of-town transportation. The small cabs (and the king owns the concession on Renault and Peugeot) are supposed to be metered but that was not always the case and even if they were, sometimes the drivers preferred to make a deal in advance.

When we arrived in Casablanca we only knew our guest house was a couple of kilometers outside the downtown area. Several cabbies offered to take us for 50 dirhams. We offered 30, then 40, but by that time they were insulted and no one would take us. Finally a new cab arrived on the scene and we did not hesitate to agree to 50. However he did not know the address but some one pointed him in the general direction so off we went through afternoon traffic in Casablanca, which must be like driving through New Delhi or Cairo. The streets were absolutely full of cars and buses and everyone was driving like a madman and everyone was honking their horns and trying to nudge through traffic. Our driver tried to cross five lanes of traffic but even he gave up and went around the round-about several times, moving over a lane at a time until he reached the street he wanted to take.

He constantly shifted, as did everyone, from lane to lane, seeking whatever slight advantage the new lane appeared to offer. He had a wonderful perception of where the bumpers were on his car because while he came frightingly close to cars, buses, trucks and even trams, he never touched one of them.

Later on we were told that Moroccan men (seemingly like men everywhere) will never say they don’t know where a place is and we certainly found that to be true that afternoon in Casablanca. Once our driver made it out to the right suburb, he stopped numerous times to ask directions. Every person seemed to know exactly where it was but their directions never worked out. We were driving back and forth looking for the place. Once we were unknowingly within half a block of the guest house yet were still sent back in the opposite direction. But our driver was persistent. He finally stopped at a mosque and two men came over to help. One of them had a cell phone and called the guest house. We weren’t far from it. The driver earned his tip. It was also in Casablanca where we had our only female cab driver of the trip. And out of the hundreds and hundreds of sellers we saw, only a handful were women and they were young. We also saw a female baker but obviously women in business, in fact in any kind of occupation, is still a recent concept.

The large, inter-city Mercedes hold a driver and seven passengers and you wait in the car until it is full. There is a central cab stand in Meknes where people can get cabs for Volubilis, Moulay Idriss and other rural places. The cabbies offered to take just the two of us but then you have to pay for the other seats. When we said we wanted to share a cab, the drivers lost all interest in us but we had learned by then to just stand there and sooner or later someone will want to take your money. Finally our cab was full and we headed off to Moulay Idriss, named for the sultan whose mausoleum is there and is considered such a sacred shrine that five visits there is worth one hajj to Mecca.

When we were ready to go to Volubilis, just four kilometers away, our guide got a cab for us. The driver offered to wait while we toured the site. He swore we just needed an hour so I knew then he wasn’t interested in Roman ruins. Finally he agreed to come back in three hours to take us back to Meknes. Actually, it turned out he waited three hours just to make sure he got the trip while we were assured we wouldn’t be stuck without transportation.

Even the most unassuming people were often looking for ways to make money. When we arrived at the train station in Meknes to go to Fez, we needed a bank to exchange some money and another passenger actually took us several blocks to a bank and waited to take us back. On the train he explained he operated a tour service (which was no surprise by that time) and explained his prices for a guide and car in Fez were cheaper than anything we could find on our own. He gave us his card and asked us to call him, that he was always available, which I didn’t doubt.

On our last day we took seven different modes of transportation: electric tram, electric train, airplane, the Airtrain at JFK, the subway, bus and, finally, our van. Going east from America to Morocco was not hard in terms of adjusting to the six hour time difference. We took a late flight across the Atlantic that was only half full and the flight crew let us spread out so everyone had two or three seats to sprawl across for sleeping.

However going back westward across the Atlantic took an extra hour because we were heading into the prevailing winds. We left Casablanca at 2 p.m. and arrived in New York at 5 p.m., which really doesn’t account for the eight hours in-between. We ended up being awake for 25 hours. Driving back home at midnight, I had to stop for a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream to jolt me with enough energy to keep me awake. It took three days for our bodies to adjust to local time here. Each afternoon, I kept thinking it was time to go to bed by Moroccan time. Now, after a week, I finally feel like I’m acclimatized to local time.

So, we want to go back. We want to go into the Berber homeland in the Atlas mountains where it actually snows in the winter. We want to go into the desert and see an oasis and take a camel ride, at least for 10 minutes or so! And we want to spend more time by the ocean.

On our way back to our guest house on the tram from the beach, I found myself next to a young college student who is majoring in American studies, which he defined as politics and popular culture. And yes, his dream is to come to America.

His home village was in the Riff Mountains in the northern part of the country, not far from Tangier. He told us several places to visit near his hometown, including Morocco’s highest waterfall. He spoke fluent English with the only noticeable problem being singular and plural endings. “We have many new invention,” he would say. But I would hate to have him judge my French. Talking with him was like conversing with so many people we met on the trip; a brief yet intense encounter. As with so many Moroccans, he was almost instantly friendly and outgoing. He wanted us to know that Islam is a religion of peace, something several people emphasized. And as he talked about his hopes and dreams, I felt drawn to him as I had felt drawn to the country itself, open, friendly, attractive, alluring. And as with the country, we shared a brief, intense moment together, then our stop arrived and we had to get off, never to see him again. Later I thought I could have given him my address; we could have corresponded. But then I realized it was better just to have the experience and let it go because trying to hold on to experiences seldom works and one is too often left with ashes instead of memories. For now I have beautiful memories of him and Morocco and perhaps, fate willing, there will be more experiences in that beautiful country to come.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Carrie Shade

Carrie Shade at Erdman's Mill, Rough and Ready, Penn. Circa 1900

Carrie on the front porch of the miller's house where she lived.

Carrie and her beau sitting on the porch railing

Carrie at Ocean City, New Jersey when she was a nurse in Philadelphia

This is a story of a young woman's pluck and determination to better herself. A neighbor gave us a box full of photographs related to the winter house and she helped identify them. Several photographs showed a young woman, still a teenager, named Carrie Shade. There are pictures of her feeding the chickens and sitting on the front porch railing with a boyfriend. Carrie was related to the Erdman family that owned the grist mill and house. Her mother was a sister to the miller's wife. We're not sure why Carrie had to leave her mother, who lived in a mining town some miles away. She may have been illegitimate but a likelier and far more common reason was that there were probably just too many mouths to feed. In any case, she helped out as a member of the family but there was no future for her here. Not being directly related to inherit the property, she could never be more than a servant. So she did something quite remarkable for someone with a limited education and limited means: she moved to Philadelphia, went to nursing school and became a professional nurse. She was determined to make something of herself and to escape the dismal future ahead for her if she stayed here in the valley.
Pennsylvania Dutch girls such as Carrie often found it hard to work in a cosmopolitan city like Philadelphia because many spoke with a strong, distinctive Dutch accent that prevented them from being hired at major hospitals which preferred a more standardized pronunciation of English. A number of local girls sought employment in Philadelphia only to return because their accent turned out to be a handicap. Carrie either did not have a strong accent to begin with or else changed it to sound more acceptable.
We know she loved going to the Jersey shore. We have post cards from her in Ocean City to the Erdman family so she did keep in touch. One shows her attending a baby parade on the boardwalk and another shows her in the surf. We don't know any more about her than these few pictures but they speak of a determined woman who made her own way in life. A caption for her life could read: Local Dutch woman makes good.

The Jacob Ramberger farm circa 1900

The site of the Ramberger farm today

Seven people once lived in this two-room shanty.

        The size of the trees indicates how long the cabin that was once here has been gone.

Time passes. Things change. The human imprint on our valley looks quite different today than it did even 100 years ago. Existing houses for the most part are well maintained and cared for. But what's left is just a fraction of what was once here. Entire farms are gone, allowed to decay and rot or else have been bulldozed and burned. Gone, too, are the smaller houses, the pioneer settler cabins, as well as the shanties and shacks in which the local poor lived. When we came here in 1988 there were still a number of vacant, abandoned houses. We moved some of them here and rebuilt and reused them. But with a few exceptions, most of the others are gone. The houses that remain are wanted houses; they remain by choice and design, not by chance. Almost all of the old places have been covered with siding inside and out; very few retain much of their original look. I can think of just a single remaining log house that looks like it did originally, as well as one stone house and a single timber-frame house. One of each; a sampler of the past. Indeed, the valley has less than half its population in 1850. Most people move away and the older, primitive dwellings are not wanted. Unfortunately many architecturally significant houses were lost due to neglect or simply the lack of bodies to inhabit them.
Such long-gone places are now indicated simply by stone cellars open to the sky. One can drive around the valley and still see these cellars, frequently dug into a hillside with field stones carefully laid on top of each other for the walls. Silent sentinels of former habitation.
Christian and I visited one such site recently. We have a photograph of the farm circa 1900; a thriving place with a double house, pig styes, summer kitchen, bake oven, huge barn, granaries, practically a community unto itself since three families lived there simultaneously, two in the main house and one in the shanty. Today there are only stone foundations left with later cement steps that lead nowhere, a hand-dug well filled in with stones by the house; another one near the barn at one time supplying water for the livestock. It's hard to believe there was so much life at the site, such a thriving, prosperous farm, now gone.
Nearby there is still an abandoned shack that was built in the 1930s, just two rooms with a separate outhouse. Not a farmhouse as the husband/father worked at a sawmill. Still, a family with five children was raised in what is basically a cabin that straddles a creek and now is slowing rotting away and sinking into the gulley beneath it. There were many small places like this at one time, inhabited by many people. It's hard these days to realize just how many people could fit into such a small space and it's no wonder they were abandoned as soon as possible.
View the valley from the top of one of the surrounding mountains and it looks idyllic with its few, carefully maintained farms; a far cry from the teeming, hard-scrabble life of earlier generations.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Spring can be an unsettling mixture of life and death, of comedy and tragedy, rather like late Shakespeare. The birds here are going through their mating rituals, couples are pairing off while the males go beak to beak to prove whatever it is they need to prove. These fights can be quite vicious. A tom turkey got his wing broken in one such fight. I separated him from the rest of the flock so they wouldn't peck him to death. Unfortunately he never recovered from the shock and eventually passed away. I saw the look in his eyes, the look I've seen so many times before, of questioning, of wondering what was happening and the fear of not knowing. I've seen it in humans, I've seen it in our livestock. It's always the same look. I imagine medics must see it far too often on the battlefield in the eyes of their comrades. It's always very hard to take.
We have a special animal graveyard for our children and that is where I put the body of our tom. At such times I always see Kali dancing, the Hindu goddess of death, all-powerful that she is. But I don't think she's happy in her work or that she gloats as she dances. She deals in transformation. I look at each creature as an incarnation of the spirit that exists briefly before returning to pure spirit and being used again and again in myriad forms. Kali assists in that work; she has her holy work to do as do we all. It's just that those of us who remain mourn those we care for who are gone.
I recently lost my best female friend to cancer. She and I could gossip and be catty and just be frivolous with each other, and that's a rare quality. We enjoyed each other's company. Karen, you are sorely missed. There is always an emptiness at someone's passing that is never adequately filled by another. We can talk about the cycle and circle of life and understand it intellectually and appreciate its value and worth but it comes at a cost, the cost of particular lives that are meaningful to us. All we can do is treasure their memory and keep it evergreen at this time of life's renewal.

A late winter snow was called the last snow of the season by an optimistic reporter. While winter is not my favorite season, it does have its own remarkable beauty. In the cold morning air I took the dogs for a walk along the edge of a vast, snow-covered field. Its corn stubble stalks standing like miniature sentries. The creek was to my left and ahead was a hillside covered with bare trees and evergreens. It was completely still, eerily quiet, not a sound, not even from the stream as it flowed on silently. The only noise came from my clomping feet as I trudged through the snow. And I wanted to take in the moment, to capture it, because in five months, in the heat and humidity and teaming sounds of August, it will be difficult to believe that such a moment ever existed.