Sunday, July 31, 2011

Kali and the Poult

     This is a true story about a man, a snake and a turkey poult. At the end of the story, the snake and the poult will be dead.
     It’s also a story about the Hindu goddess Kali, the so-called goddess of death who wears a necklace of skulls while holding the severed head of a warrior. Kali is understandably fearsome. She dances on the body of her divine consort who willingly lets her wear out her driven passion on himself so this is a story of love as well.
     The poult and its brothers and sisters arrived in a cardboard box at the post office. I put them into a metal tub under a heat lamp. Baby turkeys need to be kept warm and dry or else they will die. For days I watched as they slowly grew larger, consuming water and food. I kept a screen over the tub so they would not jump or fly out. There came a point when it was time to move them to their next home, a bird house where they would have more room and could actually begin to fly inside. To prepare the poults for the rigors of being outdoors, I began turning off the heat lamp during the day so they could start hardening off. On the day before moving them, I went into the shanty and fed them. I came back an hour later to see something large inside the tub and noticed the turks were terrified. I looked closer and it was a six-foot black snake that had already killed one of the poults and was beginning the long process of eating it. I was horrified because I’d always taken care of the snakes in the winter house. I let them outdoors in the spring when they were ready to go outside. I kept them safe indoors because I knew they ate mice and snakes are also sacred to me. And this is how I was repaid. At least that’s what I kept screaming at the snake as I chopped it apart with poults flying out of the tub as I removed the screen so I could aim my axe at it. In my anger I inadvertently smashed the lamp and the ceramic food plate, one of my favorites of course.
     The snake and the poult were wrapped together in death as I took them outdoors and deposited their lifeless bodies near the road. I gathered the remaining poults, put them into a carrying cage and brought them to their new home. The next day I went back to see the snake and the poult. Flies were on the bodies and swarming around them. Maggots were already gutting the poult and the snake. Death alone was triumphant.
And that’s when I thought about Kali. I have several pictures of her in my house, as well as a sculpture. She is fearsome indeed, with her tongue hanging out of her mouth, sword in hand, death triumphant. Yet she also has one hand raised in the traditional position of “no fear” so common to Hindu and Buddhist deities. How can such fearsome goddess also be saying “Don’t be afraid?” How can we not be afraid of what she is? Because Kali is more than the incarnation of death, she is also liberation from death. For Kali actually represents time which destroys all things. Only Kali herself stands outside time so by worshipping her, we stand in her protection. No fear.
     Kali is also a fearless warrior and one time the gods needed her to overcome the armies of approaching enemies. She went into battle and destroyed the warriors arranged against her, but then she went insane with blood lust and began killing the innocent as well, a story so common in war. The gods had no way of stopping her and it seemed as though as creation itself might be destroyed. Then her loving and beloved consort Shiva stepped forward and said he would stop her. So he laid on the ground and let her trample him until she wore herself out. At that moment her thirst and hunger were satiated and she regained sanity. What self-sacrificing love!
     I thought of Kali as I looked at the maggots eating the remains of my beloved poult and the snake that ate him. I foolishly blamed the snake for doing what snakes do, as in the story of the snake who was taken across a stream by a friendly creature only to be bitten by the snake halfway across, thereby ending with the death of them both. As the benefactor drowned, it asked the snake why it had bitten him considering he was helping the snake cross the river. “That’s what I do,” replied the snake. There was nothing personal to it, just as I was not at all involved in why the snake was eating my poult. I’ve seen black snakes crawl up tree trunks to find and eat baby birds. That’s what they do. The fact that I had helped the snake many times was nice but not relevant at this point. The snake was hungry; it heard the poults chirping away, followed the sound to its source and then had lunch. Nothing personal at all. I made it personal, but it wasn’t personal. The fact that I would not let the snake survive was my issue, my anger at what it had done. And now two creatures were dead, each one now food for new life as maggots ate their flesh. Kali supreme.
     So where was enlightenment in all this? For Kali is nothing if not a beacon for enlightenment. The dark goddess summons those who follow her, offering redemption from the illusion of existence, the illusion that things are permanent when actually all is smoke and mirrors. Beyond the illusion of death is the true permanence of the spirit that does not die. Beyond time, which is Kali’s realm, is the timeless towards which she points the way if we only we will follow. Kali harvests death, the snake and the poult. Beyond them, beyond even the maggots feasting on them, is another realm that is hard to see as we try to look through a glass darkly, hoping to spot glimpses of a world beyond. But that world beyond is still the world here and now. And what Kali says is “Do not fear for nothing is lost. No, nothing is ever lost.”
 I turn away from the entwined bodies of snake and poult which now have become a terrible new creature formed from both. In killing the snake I have shattered the cycle of which she and the poult were part. I could not let the poult die unavenged. I could not let the snake survive and so have added to the price of its hunger. Kali seeks victims until I lay down and let her dance on me.

My Little Amazon

In his movie Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen says the purpose of an artist is to create meaning for meaningless existence. My purpose now is somewhat different: I am creating meaning for a meaningless death.

She was my little Amazon, the Muscovy duckling that wasn’t even supposed to be alive. I put her chances for survival at 50/50 and we’d already had one duckling not only survive but thrive after I took him out of his shell against Bro. Christian’s better judgment.
Christian always said I should not help any bird get out of its shell because only by forcing its way out would it become strong enough to survive. The corollary being any bird that died in its shell was too weak to survive. But I could not face having her die cold and wet in such dark surroundings, waded up in a ball. No, even if she were to die, I wanted her to be warm and dry, all fluffed out and in a safe place. But safety, it turned out, was relative.
As I said, I’d already had success keeping one baby duckling alive after its mother abandoned the nest with her firstborn, leaving several eggs behind. Only one showed any sign of life, as we saw and heard chipping away from the inside as it tried to break through the shell. When it seemed to give up, I took matters into my own hands, as I am wont to do, and carefully broke open the shell to reveal the folded up, wet duckling inside. I brought it into the summer house where I already had a metal tub and a heat lamp, its new mother, set up. Carefully drying it off, I laid it under the lamp and within an hour it was fully dry, a little yellow fuzz ball with delicate pads for feet and a small head with two tiny black dots for eyes, already making duck sounds.
One of the great joys in having baby birds is giving them their first drink of water and their first taste of food. After that, they catch on quickly. Soon the little guy was running around the tub. The duckling seemed to be male in the same way my little Amazon seemed to be female, though it was impossible at that age for us to tell for certain. Amazingly, he lived and after a week we moved him over to the duck house where we already had his mother and brothers and sisters. In his case, intruding into nature’s scheme paid off but, as I said, I put the chances at 50/50 and the odds came up against us with the second duckling.
We found another nest with several eggs left unhatched when the mother took those that had already hatched down to the pond where I proceeded to take a swim and catch them so they wouldn’t be eaten by wild animals as they inevitably were if we left them alone. As with the first batch, we found one egg with signs of life, a small hole appearing in the shell that slowly grew larger, perhaps no more than half an inch across, then the duckling stopped pecking at the shell, possibly already worn out from exertion. I waited for several hours to see what would happen but there was no more pecking and, again, I grew worried and did not want the duckling to die wet and cold in the darkness of its shell. So once again I tempted fate by carefully picking open the shell and carefully unwrapping the duckling, amazed at how such a living creature could actually fit inside such a small shell.
As with the first duckling, I carefully wiped this one off but she was terribly weak. Again, this baby seemed female to me. Her head hung down the same way it had in the shell. I could tell she was a preemie but did not realize she had a fatal flaw that would end in her death: the part of her body where the egg sack was attached was open. Maybe it is in all baby birds, I don’t know, but she had a small hole in her belly that I just assumed would close up with time. I assumed it would close up, remember that word because it came back to haunt me.
She was terribly weak but under the heat lamp she dried out and fluffed out into a beautiful yellow baby chick. Again I had the thrill of giving her her first water but she barely took any of it and trying to get her to eat was useless, she was just too weak.
Instead of being able to stand on her own two padded feet and begin walking, she lay under the lamp, unable to lift her head. I knew she needed stimulation, touch, to activate her body and prevent her from dying. I began stroking her back and she responded to that, moving her body and eventually, slowly, getting up on her short little feet, wobbly, head still bowed over, learning to stand and taking hesitant first steps. Everything was delayed with her, development was slow. I would lift her up and hold a cup of water to her beak. By now she knew what it was and began to actively drink, which encouraged me. Slowly, very slowly, over several days, she began to stand on her own. I kept stroking her and, maybe because she didn’t like being stroked, she started to move away, slowly at first but as I continued stroking her, she began to move faster to the point where she would run around the tub and finally, to my great relief and encouragement, began trying to jump out of the tub to get away.
Eating was still difficult. It seemed that even the crumbled food was too hard for her to chew and swallow. I pinched the already small crumbles between my fingers to make them even finer and added small amounts of water to soften them even more. Now, as I put her beak close to the food, she began taking in at least small amounts. After several days her head raised up at last and she seemed to recover from her early birth. I began leaving a small cup of water and a small plate of dampened food for her to eat while I was not there. In retrospect this may not have been a good idea as it may have kept her belly damp, but then there was still that open wound in her belly that I forgot about because her yellow fuzz covered everything and I just assumed, again that terrible word, that things were fine.
To get her to exercise, I took her out of the tub and let her run around the room. She was up in the attic and had the floor to herself. I would stroke her back and she would run and run around the room. She was so full of life and was daily getting stronger. I started calling her my little Amazon, remarking on her growing strength. I said she would have muscles on muscles which would scare off half the boys and attract the other half. “My little Amazon,” I kept calling her and, terrible presumption, started planning for when I would finally be able to introduce her back into her home flock of mother, brothers and sisters in the duck house where all the babies are kept until they get their full white feathers and are large enough to survive on their own.
As I said, I was already planning for her future, not realizing she didn’t have one. I had already tempted fate by saving one duckling. In terms of percentages alone, this next one was doomed. But for now that did not seem to be the case as I joyfully played morning and evening with her. She was the delight of my life. I could not believe how happy such a small creature could make me. Needless to say, I loved her.
The evenings were best, that was our special time together when, after a long day, I could finally relax with her. One evening I noticed she kept trying to scratch her belly, which I thought was a good sign that she was mature enough to be concerned about mites and other irritations. But the cause was more than mites, and much more serious than an irritation.
It was the next morning when I went to see her and she was on her back, struggling to get up. I noticed her bottom was damp and matted. It had been matted since birth, actually, and I had tried to tease apart the tangled yellow fuzz to clean it out but stopped when I realized I was hurting her.
Now I closely inspected to find out just what was going on when I saw them, a tangled, teaming mass of maggots. Somehow, a single fly had gotten to her and laid her eggs in the still open wound of my preemie. I screamed and took her downstairs to the sink where I washed them off and, to my dismay, found how easy it was to clean the impacted, matted mass with running water when I had given up trying to clean it with my fingers alone. Why, I asked myself, hadn’t I thought about doing this when she was just hatched? Things would have been so much easier if she had been cleaned up from the beginning. But my thoughts then had been to keep her dry, not to wash her down and get her wet all over again; that was the opposite of what I had wanted for her. But now I blamed myself for the maggots that were on her. I also blamed myself for the fly that had been able to land on her and infest her with her eggs. There had not been a problem with flies in the summer kitchen. Never had I thought one might lay eggs on her.
I carefully washed her clean and had a chance to more closely inspect her wound now that the feathers were matted. What I saw horrified me. The maggots weren’t all gone. In fact, they were living inside her. They came crawling out of her belly wound, living just under her skin and eating her muscles, eating her alive. Their wriggling, white tubes with black teeth at the front were crawling out from inside her body, trying to reach the air as they needed air to breathe. This was more than I could bear; they were inside my angel’s body cavity; they were killing her.
I screamed for Brother Christian and kept screaming. He came over from his house in a panic as I showed him the horror of what was happening. He loved our little angel as well but kept his head and realized we had to get the maggots out of her. He started picking at them with his finger nails but his fingers were too large for the tiny maggots and he couldn’t see them well either. With my near-sightedness, I could see them closely and I used the blunt end of a needle to pry them out from inside her. When I seemed to have killed most of them, he checked her out all over.
“Oh no,” he said, “They’re all over her.” Not just in her belly wound; they had started eating around her anus as well. “There’s a huge colony of them,” he said, as again he tried to pick them out with his fingers but I ended up again using a needle to scrape them off as they came out from inside her body. Finally, finally, it seemed that we had all of them out. We dried her off. The stress had been very difficult for her. Her head went down as it had when she first came out of the shell. I could tell she was regressing and losing all of her progress. Still, we dried her off as best we could and kept her under the heat lamp, hoping she would recover.
Later in the day she seemed her old self, getting up and walking around as she had formerly. But that evening I inspected her again and, again, I found new masses of tiny maggots both in her belly wound and around her bottom. Once again I screamed for Christian and once again he came over. Once again I used the needle to get them out. I dunked her in warm water trying to shut off the maggots’ air supply and force them out of her body. They kept coming out of her. It was one of the most horrible scenes I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen some pretty horrible things during our years of working with animals; everyone has who works with animals.
“I have to kill her,” I told Christian; “She’ll never survive this.”
But he convinced me to let her alone, to let her recover overnight as, once again, it seemed we had gotten out all of the maggots. My little Amazon was terribly weak but, once again, we dried her off and let her recover from the stress. Once again she fluffed out and became the beautiful little duckling we loved so much, and so I went off to bed.
The next morning she was once again wet on her bottom. Once again I held her close to my nearsighted eye and, to my horror, realized her wound was much larger now; that maggots had been eating her through the night and now I could actually see her internal organs. Not thinking she had any chance for survival, once again Christian and I tried to clean out all of the remaining maggots. There were very few by now and I thought that somehow my strong girl just might pull through, despite the massive size of her gaping wound. I thought just somehow she might pull it off even though we almost lost her as she went limp as we were pulling out the maggots and we had to revive her. Once again we left her under the heat lamp to recover from the stress of her ongoing ordeal.
Several hours later I went to the summer house to check on her and saw Brother Christian coming out with a wrapped-up newspaper page in his hand. There were tears in his eyes and I knew our little Amazon was dead. “She just couldn’t stand the stress,” he said. I carefully unwrapped the paper and there she was, my little Amazon, with her dead eyes still open, with that quizzical look I’ve seen so many times on so many faces, that quizzical look at the face of death of itself, the look that asks the unanswerable question, “What’s happening to me?” I imagine wartime medics in Iraq and Afghanistan see that look all the time in the eyes of dying soldiers. It’s not just a human look, a human act in the fact of the unknown, but an act of all sentient creatures faced with the unknowable, the unbelievable. I saw it on my mother’s face as she lay dying. And I see it again on the face of my little Amazon.
“They’re not going to have her,” said Christian. “I won’t let the maggots have her in death. We’re going to cremate her.”
I fetched a beautiful piece of Indian silk with a rainbow of color and texture. I carefully wrapped her slight body in it. Christian had a piece of white lace for the final, outer wrapping, white for the innocent she was.
We took her body and laid it on the funeral pyre. Christian started the fire and quite quickly the lace and silk were engulfed in flame. I thought I could hear the swelling and popping of the maggots as the heat reached them inside her, killing them as they had killed my baby. Grim satisfaction it was knowing they were boiling and dying as she turned into smoke and ash, purified of pain and her mortal coil that had proved deficient at keeping her alive in the face of such monstrosity. Now she was free as her spirit soared into the sky.
“Nothing is ever lost,” I heard. “No, nothing is ever lost.”
The smoke rose; our baby was free at last. She had given us so much love, so much joy in such a brief period of time. Had I been wrong in trying to keep her alive? Should I have let her die in her shell, in the cold, dark, dampness of her shell? I didn’t believe that; I couldn’t believe that. I saw her running around the attic floor, happy in her existence which was far, far too brief. But for a brief time she enjoyed being alive and, for a brief time, her existence gave joy to ours.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The gimp is dead

He wasn't always a gimp. When hatched, the little Muscovy duckling was strong and healthy. It was only later, when he matured, that he was struck a glancing blow by a car that didn't slow down, whose driver maybe just didn't care if a duck on the road was hit. Well, what were ducks doing on the road anyway? Were they stupid?
In his case, he just liked to feel the warmth of the asphalt under his body, especially when it was cold. The road was just about the only place he could get warm and, no, he wasn't stupid. He just didn't know that those loud, lumbering things that came upon him so fast could kill him. The thought never entered his mind.
And so his hip was dislocated. It healed, after a fashion. As long as he wasn't stressed, as long as he could just walk normally, it stayed in place. But if he was scared or forced to move quickly, then it came out and he floundered around, flip-flopping from side to side like the accident victim he was.
He had spunk, though, that one did. After the accident he was rejected by the others who sensed he was no longer quite right. But unwilling, or unable, to leave the flock completely he stayed on the edges where he would not be chased away by the older, more aggressive ducks. He stayed there, the outside looking in, wistfully, sadly, but he kept to himself and lived his life, searching here and there for delicate tidbits of plant matter and maybe an insect or two.
My heart went out to him. He was the one I loved more than all the others. Despite his disability he kept moving on, kept on truckin', never giving up. During the harsh winter with its severe cold, snow and wind, I made sure to throw corn his way so he wouldn't have to fight for food. Each day I looked for him, making sure he was all right, that he was at his place along the edge. Sometimes he stayed to himself, not getting near the other ducks, as though solitude was not by itself a problem.
Then came the morning when I drove back to the Hermitage and there he was, smashed flat, run over in the road where he'd been warming himself on the asphalt. Either the driver didn't see him or didn't care or maybe even tried to avoid him but the gimp went the wrong way. Whatever the reason, he was gone. That courageous little heart, the beautiful soul, was gone.
Death is the one irreconcilable force which I cannot come to grips with. Now, I've known creatures to die who were ready for death, who longed and prayed for it. The gimp was not among them. One moment he's alive - the next, he isn't. And no matter how hard we try, we cannot put the pieces back together again. There is no glue powerful enough to do that. We stare at death, helpless, and it hurts, and it angers.
Our big tom turkey died the other morning. I found his lifeless body on the floor of the chicken house. He was our oldest turkey, the only survivor of a massacre last year that took all of our other turkeys. They had started wandering down the road into the woods to meet some female turkeys nesting there. Then they stopped coming back in the evening to roost. Then they wandered all the way to the next village. And we never saw them again. Whether they were shot or killed by animals, we don't know. Only the tom returned and he never left the barnyard after that experience.
His death was caused by an infection in his lungs that made it difficult, then impossible, to breathe. Needless to say we are close to our birds. They are family. And the loss of any one diminishes all of us.
Like the recent morning when I drove into the barnyard and saw a duck down by the spring, not moving. I could tell something was wrong so I went to see him. He looked up at me, dazed, uncomprehending, but I couldn't see anything wrong until I picked him up and realized his side had been ripped open by a wild animal that had eaten part of him while still living. I carried him to the barnyard and killed him. His eyes were still open though dull. I've seen that look of bewilderment on people when they die, it must be the same look medics see on the lethally wounded in war. "What's happening to me?" they ask. And there's no answer.
There was also no answer to the carnage I found in the chicken yard; whatever killed the duck somehow, maybe by climbing over the chain-link fence, killed three turkeys and six hens. A few bodies were gone but most were left where they fell. It's moments like these, the senseless violence and death of helpless, innocent creatures, that are among the hardest moments I face. There is no answer to their "Why?" One can only mourn, and remember. Which is why I remember my sweet gimp, pushing himself along, hard as it was, step by difficult, faltering step on the path of life.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Florette is dead

   Florette, our last sheep, died while we were gone on vacation. Christian found her remains in the upper field, already picked over by the turkey buzzards. Now there’s just one old cow left and, when she’s gone, that’s it for our livestock. For several years we’ve been moving towards birds - ducks, chickens, geese and turkeys - as they are easier to maintain and have a high entertainment value as they wander the property.
   Still, it’s hard to lose Florette as she was our last connection to the early years of the Hermitage when we eagerly acquired rare breeds of goats, sheep and oxen to live with us. They embodied our ideal of returning to the garden, of living in harmony with the earth and her creatures. We had no fencing then and the animals roamed freely about the property. On warm summer evenings they gathered around our outdoor supper table, sitting on the ground, waiting for any tidbits to be tossed their way. We truly felt at peace in those moments, as rare as they were when we were building a community almost literally from nothing, moving log and timber-frame buildings to the property while living in the barn.
Like our early Moravian forbearers in Bethlehem, whose First House had people at one end and animals at the other, our barn, the only original building left on the property, had Christian and I living on the main floor while the animals lived below us in the stable area. At night we heard them moving and mooing around and it was comforting to know we were together.
   Florette was a Jacob, a small, rare breed from England that is brown, black and white. The fleece is wiry and coarse, not a good spinning fiber but the breed is so visually interesting that we fell in love with them. Our Jacobs came from a flock in Tarrytown, New York, owned by the Rockefeller family, actually just by the widow of David Rockefeller, who imported a shepherdess from England to manage them. We’d arrive at the entrance gates in our beat-up old van to be admitted into a private world where wealth was shown by the size of the stables and barns and by pristine maintenance of the fields and pastures. We’d load up the van with lambs and drive them back to the Mahantongo Valley where they faced a very different world, sharing our own hard-scrabble life of building, farming and creating a spiritual place all while trying to make a living to keep everything going.
   Eventually the lack of fencing posed problems as our animals began roaming and foraging on our neighbors’ corn. We were forced to put up fences that kept the animals away from us, breaking those early bonds, replacing closeness with security. As the Hermitage grew in numbers of programs and buildings, we had less and less time for the animals and gradually sold most of the livestock until we ended up with just Florette the sheep and Christmas Early, the cow.
Florette was nearly 15 when she died, old for a sheep, though her death was hastened when she was chased into the pond by a dog and ended up swimming for her life. The stress of that encounter, just before we left, must have been difficult though I thought she doing well as she returned to her routine of grazing and resting.
   Now she is gone and only our cow remains. She is also about fifteen years old and I’m sorry she’s alone. Herd animals need to have others around them but Christmas Early is all that’s left and I know she’s lonely. When her sister died some years ago, Christmas Early mourned and bellowed for days. When she dies, our livestock will be gone and a significant chapter in our story will be done. But don’t forget the birds. Ducks are always amusing.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Ducks, Ducks and More Ducks

Ducks. That’s what we’ve got: way, way too many ducks. And catfish. Big, big catfish. In spring, we had just five Muscovy ducks; they are white with hairless, red, fleshy clumps around their necks and faces. They have been called ugly but familiarity breeds fondness. The males have wonderful bouffant hairdos piled on top like whipped cream or an aging Las Vegas entertainer.
We’ve had them for at least five years and they have never had any babies that survived being eaten by the foxes that periodically check out the farm for munchable tidbits like baby ducks. We have tried to save them, even to bringing indoors entire nests complete with eggs so the mothers could sit on their eggs in complete safety. Unfortunately we also learned that once a nest is disturbed, the mothers have nothing more to do with it so the eggs never hatched.
This year we decided to watch the nests and capture the ducklings the day they hatched. However the first batch was kept so secret by their mother that we didn’t even see them for several days, by which time they were so fast we couldn’t catch them and, sure enough, the same old routine repeated itself, within days eleven of the twelve ducks were gone but we were able to corral the last duckling and put it in one of the bird houses for safe keeping. The poor baby was all alone and looked wistfully out through the wire screening to freedom just beyond. It was lonely but safe.
We had more success with the second batch of ducklings. Seven were left by the time we found them, all of which we caught plus the mother, who stayed right with her children despite the fear she must have felt at us coming at her to capture her family. So they, too, went inside the bird house. By now the first duckling already had his feathers and was quite large. Still, he took to the new mother and adopted her as his own, staying by her side all day and trying to nestle under her at night with her real babies. Of course he was so big that he actually lifted her up as he tried to get underneath her, which caused issues for her and her babies. Still, everyone adjusted and there was harmony in the coop.
We found the third mother had a nest of eggs in the tractor shed and we watched her for days. Ducks take about 35 days to hatch and we weren’t sure when she started brooding. She, too, stayed right on the nest as we cautiously approached to check on her. Again, her fear was overcome by her genetic drive to protect her babies.
` Finally, patience was rewarded when I saw her proudly leading her newly-hatched family outside the wagon shed. It may have been their very first walk as they were still unsteady so I was easily able to grab all of them, putting them into a bucket and taking them over to the bird house. However, I couldn’t catch mom and she went squawking down to the pond.
We assumed everyone would get along but no, there was jealousy and two of the babies were pecked to death before we realized the problem then we kicked the first batch out. By now they had their feathers and followed mom, along with the adopted child, down to the pond.
Each of our female ducks had hatched a brood but unbeknownst to us, the first mother, who only had one child survive, was determined to try again. One day I saw sixteen little fluffy yellow peeps swimming in the pond with mom. This is where the catfish come in because I knew that between the muskrats and the catfish, these little guys didn’t stand a chance. So I dove into the pond and swam around catching them one by one.
By now Christian had arrived on the scene with a bucket on the dock and as I caught the babies, I handed them to him. The ducklings and I went round and round the pond, one even learned how to dive under the water and swim to another part of the pond, which made things quite frustrating because I’d chase him to one area just to have him dive and pop up someplace else. Finally he wore out and went on shore where I was able to catch him as well.
Unfortunately the mother didn’t want to be caught so we took the 16 babies up to the bird house where they fortunately fit in with the ones already there. So now we had nearly 30 babies together and they were soon found by their respective mothers who stood guard outside. They were joined by a mother goose, unsuccessful at hatching her own, who decided to adopt the ducks as well so all three maintain vigil at the bird house.
Once the ducklings are larger and have their feathers, we’ll set them out for a grand reunion with their mothers (natural and adoptive) who will take them down to the pond where they will finally have a good chance of surviving. I don’t want to deal with the issue of what happens next summer when all of these ducks are ready to mate. I just hope the females will use the morning-after pill and the males are gay.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Our three barn cats

We have three barn cats and they’ve been here for more than twelve years. Blackie wandered onto the property and gave birth to Charlotte. Soon after birth, Charlotte was trapped by our dogs in a wood pile and wedged herself deep within the lumber, which is the only way she survived as her brothers and sisters did not. Carefully, we pulled apart the lumber around her and put her and her mother in a safe, dog-free environment: the barn. They live there today, along with Boudicca, named for the famous female Celtic warrior simply because she has a pink triangle on her nose.
The three of them are quite contented; spending most of each day sleeping either in the barn or out in the barnyard on sunny days, the dogs, for the most part, having learned a live-and-let-live attitude. In the evenings the cats like to sit with me as I take a few minutes to relax, laying on the grass and scratching their ears and petting them. Only Charlotte will roll over and let me scratch her belly, though she’s still suspicious enough to keep an eye open for approaching danger.
Many people don’t feed their barn cats, thinking hunger will make them better mousers. Perhaps that‘s true, but I prefer not to use hunger as a motivator. It just takes one ill mouse for us to lose a cat and I don’t want to take the chance so they are well fed. I figure hunting is so instinctual that they will probably hunt just for the thrill of it. From the way our cats play with their prey before killing it, I’ve learned that hunting is as much a game as being necessary for survival. And, as I said, hunting isn’t necessary for our cats. I feed them cafeteria style; there’s always food in their bowls. Of course they have to share it with the chickens and turkeys who have also found the food bowls and don’t realize these tasty morsels are just for cats.
Our vet said Blackie is the healthiest barn cat she’s ever seen, and I take that as a compliment to how we provide a safe, nurturing place to live for the three cats.
I think about them one evening while driving home through the woods and see two young kittens playing in the road. I stop and get out, wondering if they are tame enough to be saved. But they run into the bushes as I approach so I don’t know if they are alone or have mom with them. I try calling out to them but my “meowing” is probably not very realistic as I hear them rustling in the tall weeds but they refuse to appear. Unfortunately their instinct for survival will not save them from the night creatures who themselves are looking for food and for whom two young, defenseless kittens will be easy prey. Their chances of surviving a fox or other carnivore are slim. Then there is the issue of food; these kittens are probably still nursing. What a waste, I think, to go through the whole gestation and birth process just to be eaten alive shortly thereafter; it hardly makes sense, like so much of nature for whom creating and destroying are constants. These sweet, beautiful kittens, so full of life and playfulness, won’t live very long and there’s nothing more I can do to prevent that than standing on the edge of the road “meowing” in a fruitless attempt to stop the inevitable. Like so many moments in life.
All I can do is spend time with Blackie, Charlotte and Boudicca, scratching and petting them and glad for each day they’re here.