Fall, 2011It's been a long, tiring and trying six months here at the Hermitage. Spring started with so much rain we were unable to plant our flax until June, months after it should have been planted. Then there was no rain at all for June and July. This means nothing for those in the Southwest who have gone without rain for two or more years, but for us here in Pennsylvania, it was devastating. Corn, flax, soy beans, hay, all field crops were severely stunted. Even though we irrigated the flax, that could not make up for the lack and loss of rain. Flax was stunted, corn leaves turned pale green and began curling, never a good sign, then the lower leaves began yellowing, then browning, all before the corn even tasseled. We were looking, as so many farmers across the country, at complete loss of our crops. Psychologically the effect was equally devastating as we became aware of the suffering of the earth and its plants to the point where we could think about little else. Towards the end of July we began calling out for rain, seeking to help call it into being, to reinforce whatever slim chance there might be for rain. One day I was up in the barn just under the roof working on a project. The sky grew cloudy and darkened. Suddenly, one by one, I heard drops of rain on the tin roof just inches above my head. The drops came faster and faster, growing louder and louder until the sky opened up and torrents of water fell onto the parched earth. The sound was loud, thundering in my ears. It was the most beautiful sound I'd ever heard. I sat there hearing it pound the roof and rejoiced in the very existence of the rain, of its healing the earth and nurturing the crops. We were saved and we were so happy.
Yet this was no a summer of moderation. Rather it was a season of excess of all things, including rain. Once it finally started, it didn't stop. The flax and other crops remained stunted though they did live. What was not stunted was the crop of weeds that grew like Topsy during the ensuing weeks and months. They overwhelmed our flax, crowding and choking out the slender flax stalks despite spraying. This was also the summer we were videotaping the growing of the flax field as part of our series on flax processing. Each week we filmed the growth and changes of the flax field and it was highly embarrassing to also be documenting the weeds and how they overwhelmed our poor crop. So much for being flax experts, we thought, but we were far from unique in suffering the depredations of climate this season.
September 6, 2011
Despite the flooding, we were both on the road today. Christian had to go into Pottsville, the county seat, on business and took my dog, the little black mutt, with him. I went the other direction, up to Sunbury along the Susquehanna River, to pick up Dido, the Dalmatian. We took her up yesterday to be spayed. She recovered well from the operation but was kept overnight for observation. We were worried she might be pregnant but fortunately she wasn’t. It was tricky getting up to Sunbury; I had to backtrack a number of times when various roads were flooded. Finally I got within a hundred yards of the animal hospital only to find out it was flooded from both sides and could not be reached by road. Surprisingly I found the surgeon who did the operation standing behind me looking at the water and said the only way to reach the hospital was by going over the train trestle down behind the hospital. He was it was still passable as the water was still a foot below the rails. So I crossed on the trestle and saw houses under three feet of water. I finally made it to the front door of the hospital only to find it was locked! Fortunately the surgeon called on his cell phone and someone opened the door for me. They had no electricity and were basically closed down but let me take Dido so we went back across the trestle, realizing it was only a matter of time before it, too, was covered with the roiling water. Huge logs were being battered against the trestle; it was quite a sight. Once we got to the van, I had to lift Dido in because she was unable to jump on her own. She was also wearing one of those plastic cones so she could not bite her incision.
Coming back was another experience as roads were closing all around us. The major state road, that I felt sure must be open, was under water and the traffic was just backing up. I turned around and eventually pulled into a state police barracks to ask what roads were still open. “Not many,” I was told. There was one that might still be open to the south, I was told, but the officer wasn’t sure. I took it because it was my only chance of getting home. Water was rushing across the road in many places up to six inches and more deep. Fortunately I was in the van we took to Maine as it sits high off the ground. An ordinary car would never have made it. I ended up taking chances I wouldn’t have taken if there were better options, but there weren’t. If one road was closed, there was often only one other way to get home, or at least get closer to home in case I finally had to stop and walk. So it was a harrowing experience but we finally made it back. I put Dido on Christian’s bed and covered her up, which was exactly where she wanted to be. Christian came home an hour or so later with basically a similar story to tell. We were both very lucky to get back as many people did not make it back to their homes tonight and are stranded out there.
3.Early in the summer I went to the dock to feed the catfish and I saw a horrible sight: one of our young catfish was in the mouth of what I thought was an eel. Now, I’ve never seen a live eel. Though once numerous in local streams, they were basically fished to extinction. Still, I’d heard rumors that they still existed and were able to come upstream to feed. I was angry yet helpless. I had no way to kill the creature. After some thought, I decided to put a corn knife on the end of a long pole. A corn knife was used to cut stalks of corn before mechanical harvesters were invented and were used in our valley up to World War II. It looks like a machete. I kept my killing tool down near the pond but didn’t see the eel again for months. By that time I had learned I was looking at a water snake, a copperhead by the shape of its head, which looked rather like a dragon sticking out of the water. It came up at a right angle. I didn’t know copperheads could swim, let alone take down a catfish, but I saw it along the edge of the water, eating a young catfish. This infuriated me. I ran up to the First House and asked Christian if he’d like to see me kill a snake. He came down while I grabbed the corn knife and went for the snake. Unfortunately it dropped the catfish and swam away undamaged beyond the length of the handle. I was frustrated to have waited so many months for this moment only to have the snake swim away. But it decided to come back, right for me. I guess it was angry at having to leave its prey. I waited until it was within reach of the knife. I quickly brought the knife down, slicing the snake in two and continued hacking away at it. The water turned red. The job was done. The remains of the snake later washed up on the edge of the water. I haven’t seen any others but I do worry that others may also be living in the pond. We’ll have to wait until spring when the water warms up to see what happens. This is the second snake I’ve had to kill this year due to feeding on our birds and fish. I hate to do it because I like snakes. I’ve just been surprised that what they consider food are creatures we value. But that’s the way of nature. I was reading a newspaper column by a rabbi who was trying to convince a young man of the existence of God by pointing to the beauty of nature. I realized that the rabbi was actually far removed from the reality of nature, of its infinite cruelty, of the untold suffering its creatures inflict upon other creatures; humanity being only one of many responsible for so much pain. It is only because I believe in the perfectibility of nature that allows me to continue being so close to it, though the price in terms of lost creatures is high.
This brings me to Mr. Wernert, a Muscovy duck that was dropped off at the Hermitage by someone. Judging by Mr. Wernert’s friendliness, he had been raised and handled from a young age because he loved people. Everyday he would stop whatever he was doing and waddle over to see me, quacking like crazy, conversing in an unknown tongue. Still, I was so taken by him that I would squat to his level and squawk back. I’m never sure what we were talking about but we were obviously engaged. I’ve never had such interaction with a bird before but we developed a relationship.
Mr. Wernert did not like being touched. He always stayed just beyond arm’s length but at that distance he felt comfortable. Whenever he was surprised the feathers on his head stood up, one of the few ways he had of expressing emotion other than quacking. It gave him the look of one of those butch haircuts from the 1950s when teenage boys made the front of their hair stand up with Brylcream. As with all birds, Mr. Wernert could look at you directly with both eyes but he was also able to turn his head and look at you with one eye or the other. I often wondered what he was seeing in that brain of his; perhaps a kind of stereoscopic image combining both eyes into a vista quite different from our own.
We called him Mr. Wernert because he had a white bouffant pompadour reminiscent of a former employer by that name.
The only problem with Mr. Wernert is that he loved to sit on the road; the warm asphalt soaking into his belly. You know where this is going. I knew it too and every day I warned him to stay off the road. Many times I shooed him away but I could not always be there to guard him and one day I found him dead on the road, his eyes still open with that quizzical look all creatures have at the moment of their passing. I screamed and screamed as I took him in my arms and walked up to the First House to show him to Christian who was also devastated by our loss. We only had him for one summer and he brought such joy into our lives. Now he was gone. At such times I think of Kali, the Hindu goddess of death. She has taken so many of our babies this summer. It has been a season of loss but the only way to avoid such loss is not to engage with creatures in the first place and that we refuse to do. We’re talking family here and even though hearts will be broken, our creatures bring us such joy and connection to nature that we understand loss comes with gain. We suffer the loss of our creatures rather than suffer the cost of being alone and disconnected from the planet.
4.We have never had luck in geese hatching their eggs as something always eats them. Turkey poults are also rare to hatch for the same reason. This year we tried something different when we found both goose and turkey nests. We took some of the eggs and put them under a brooder hen in the chicken house. She readily adopted them as her own and sat on them until they hatched. Because the brooder hutches are off the floor, that first step for the newly hatched birds must have been quite a shock but they were evidently flexible and shock absorbent because we found them wandering around the chicken house and even in the yard following hatching. Best of all they were left alone by the other hens. This was so successful we hope to do it again next summer.
The Muscovy’s are one breed that needs no help in breeding. They are profligate and prolific. Some mothers hatched three batches of babies this year and two continued setting well into November, long after their eggs had frozen. When new batches were hatched, I’d take half of the babies and leave the other half with the mother, knowing their chances for survival were not good considering the number of predators such as foxes that love to eat the helpless little creatures.
I put my half under a heat lamp in a safe area until they are big enough to be out on their own, basically when their true feathers replace their down. However one mother was able to save most of her babies by taking them away from the pond, where the wild things come at night, and down to the creek where somehow she managed to save them. Four continue to stay with her and every day she brings them up to the pond so swim with the rest of the ducks and geese. But in the evening the four little ones follow her back down to the creek and safety.
Somehow she kept them alive even during our eight-inch pre-Halloween snow. She must have found shelter for herself and them, unlike the other mother with babies who did not survive the snow. I never saw them again but I fear they huddled around her as the snow got deeper and deeper and it’s possible all of them suffocated as snow covered them over. What a tragedy. What needless loss. A feeling I have about so much of life. It reminds me of a Noel Coward song when he says “things could have been organized better.”
Once again Kali dances her dance of death with strings of skulls around her neck and holding still bleeding heads in her multiple hands. Death is inescapable. “I am inescapable,” she says. But not too soon, I beg for my babies, not too soon.
There is death which is unavoidable, like the deaths of all of our turkey poults who were hatched by our brooder hen. One by one they weakened and died, some with tumors on their bodies or faces. We did not know why they died; perhaps they caught some kind of virus. Each time we had to face the question of whether to kill them or not but as they never seemed to be in pain, just progressively weaker, we decided to let nature take its course though each death was hard.
Then there were the other deaths, the ones I caused. Let us go then, you and I, to the edge of that darkness from which none return. We were inundated in rats and there was the old saying that for every rat you see, twelve more are lurking in the background. We put out loose corn for the birds so it’s no wonder other creatures help themselves. A major problem with rats, aside from health concerns, is that they are so destructive. Aside from that I would be tempted to let them live but, as I say, they destroy so many different things, from chewing furniture to chewing linens. So I set out poison for them. The poison causes hemorrhages so they die of internal bleeding, not a pleasant way to go. After setting out the rat bait in places where our birds could not reach it, I noticed a rat sitting in the middle of the road, barely moving, slightly swaying from side to side and I knew immediately that he was dying and that I was causing both the pain he was obviously feeling and the death that was coming. At that moment I knew I was Kali for these creatures, and this was not the only dying rat I was to see during the following days. I was the bringer of death to these creatures whose only fault was in existing. And soon that would no longer be true. I went to the rat in the road to catch and kill him but he still had enough strength to run away to whatever lonely, miserable end awaited him.
A foot from where I am typing hangs a Currier and Ives print titled “Death of Washington, Dec. 14, A.D. 1799.” The recently deceased father of his country lies peacefully in bed, as though sleeping, surrounded by his family, his physician, a friend and the domestic staff. All grieve the loss. But no one grieves the passing of a rat, a turkey, a duck. They form an endless brigade marching into the maw of death. Christian and I mourn the loss of the creatures we know but there are far more who die in nature unknown, unmourned, and whether violently or gently, all go into that darkness from which none return. But as Kali also tells me, repeatedly until I learn it even if I don’t fully know what it means, everything changes, everything dies, but nothing is ever, ever lost.
A letter lies on the kitchen table, unopened during supper while we talk about the day and laugh at the comics in the newspaper. Later I’m still reading when I hear crying and turn around to see Christian standing at the sink, crying. I see he holds the letter, now opened, in his hand. I ask what’s wrong, dreading the answer which cannot be good. “Joanne is dead,” he says. His dearest friend from his first teaching days in Salt Lake. They were soul mates and remained in contact throughout the following years, even when separated by more than half a continent. We had known she was ill but had no idea she was dying. The letter sat there on the table while we laughed and enjoyed ourselves; Kali waiting for her moment to appear which she did, taking joy away and leaving us in shock. But I don’t think she enjoys her work. No, I think she does it because it must be done; it is the way of the world. And besides, it’s like she says, nothing is ever, ever lost.