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.