Note: Since the blog posts online go from newest to oldest, I suppose my combined weekly posts should do the same. Sorry if I didn’t do it before.
April 26th, 2005
A true story. Warning: this is long. I’m thinking of submitting it as a personal essay to someplace or other.
My Soft-Coated Wheaten Terror: Gus Gets Blood-Lust
Over the last three years or so at my house in Fort Montgomery, New York, I raised various flocks of backyard hens almost continuously. This odd hobby was sparked by my graduate school days in Iowa, when my wife and I lived for six months in an old farmhouse in the quaint little town of Eldora. It was at this farm that I developed a penchant for fresh eggs. I’ve written elsewhere of building a coop on my New York property and of purchasing my first batch of hens. That’s a feather in an old hat.
Two years ago, after much thought and planning and research, I decided to take on a new pet, a Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier. One equation I didn’t know then but know now is this: chicken + terrier = terrorized or dead chicken. In my research I’d read that Wheatens were bred on farms in Ireland, and that their primary function was to catch mice and rats. A farm dog certainly would be fine around chickens, right? The first time I took Gus up to my chicken coop, I was wise enough to have him on a leash. I figured I’d let my new friend, this adorable bearded puppy with big floppy paws, meet my older feathered friends. Well, he got one look at their golden feathers and red combs and plump downy breasts, and his brown eyes took on a gleam I’d never seen, his pink tongue lolled and dripped saliva. Like Wile E. Coyote, he literally licked his chops. Then he barked like mad, yanked the leash from my hand, and ran around the coop looking for any gap in the fence through which he might squeeze. As he grew older, sometimes he got loose, and the chicken coop was always his first stop. He never forgot what was up there in that crooked little house, behind that flimsy fence. And every time he ran up there his teeth would glisten.
Last summer he finally got a chance to sink those teeth into warm feathers. Or at least I think he did. It was a hot day, and in the morning I’d let the hens out of their pen to eat raspberries and to scratch for worms. Afterward, I’d taken Gus across the river to our off-leash trail, where he’d run so much I was sure he was pooped. We pulled up the driveway, and I washed him off at the hose, and then trusted him to follow me to the backyard gate. Even as tired as he was, some synapse in his doggy brain fired chickenschickenschickens. Off he ran. I got up the hill in time to chase a few inside the pen, but Gus was in hot pursuit of my lone black hen. Squawking, barking, feathers flying. Then total stillness. No sign of dog or chicken. I called and called. Fifteen minutes passed. Then thirty. I got in the car and searched the neighborhood, asking if anyone had seen a tan dog chasing a black chicken. Everyone looked at me as though I’d escaped from Rockland Psychiatric. Finally, I gave up. I figured that if Gus wanted to come home, he’d come home, and that if he’d indeed caught the chicken…well, he was having his toothy way with her and there was nothing anyone could do about it. I walked into the backyard and heard his tags jingling up the driveway. He made a tentative approach to the gate, but what I was looking at wasn’t my dog. It was The Swamp Thing’s dog: a brown, tangled, muddy, leaf-littered thing. But there was no sign of blood. Or feathers. So I’ll never know if he actually did get to sink his teeth into my black hen. I never saw her again, and I envision Gus shaking her the way he does toys and balls and socks, his strong jaws squeezing, squeezing, her yellow legs whipping left and right. After that, I was careful to never let Gus loose while the hens were outside the gate foraging. Several more times he’d made covert missions up there, but they were always safely fortified. No further casualties.
So when I won this writing residency, a chance to live in the wilds of Oregon, you’d think I would have been more rational. Nope. I was thrilled to read in the description that not only were dogs allowed but that one of the structures on the property was an old chicken coop. I visited last summer to check the place out and have a weekend orientation.
“So it’s okay to have chickens?” I asked the Boyden brothers, who own the place.
“Do whatever you want,” Bradley said. “It’s your place.”
Frank added, “One resident had a rooster. She carried it around on her shoulder. It slept in the house with her. Don’t let yours do that.”
I assured them I wouldn’t.
Nine months later I arrived and one of my first tasks was to scope out the chicken coop. I was disappointed to find it quite run-down. More work than it might be worth. Then Bradley told me the smokehouse below my cabin wasn’t functional, that the pipe was completely filled with dirt. “Convert that into a chicken shack,” he said.
The smokehouse was overrun with weeds and blackberry bushes with shark fins for thorns, but it was the perfect size for a couple of hens, and all it needed was a new door. That was two and a half weeks ago.
A few days later, during my first trip to town, I asked around at both a garden shop and a feed store. At the latter, the owner had Barred Rock chicks. I’ve always wanted to raise Barred Rocks, which are gorgeous chickens with white and black stripes, the zebra of the fowl family. But these peepers weren’t more than three weeks old, which meant they wouldn’t lay me an egg until August, and like most creatures, I want what I want when I want it.
“Check the local papers,” Debbie, the feed store owner, said.
I made my second trip in to town yesterday. First stop: the feed store. I wanted to ask Debbie if she’d sell me one of her own adult hens. I’d pay her whatever she wanted. The place was closed. I ran my other errands, and stopped in again later in the afternoon, my last stop, or so I thought.
“I was thinking about you,” she said. “You wanted egg-layers, right?”
I told her I did. Out in the car, Gussie’s floppy gray ears probably perked right up.
“I saw something in the paper here. Hold on.” Debbie, a short red-haired woman who looks as though she should own a feed store, thumbed through a newspaper. “Mares. You don’t want horses. I could have sworn I saw someone giving away sixty hens.”
“Oh, I only want a couple.”
“Now I can’t find it.”
“Hey, why not just sell me a couple of your adult birds?”
“I don’t have any.”
“I thought you said you sold fresh eggs.”
She laughed. “I do, but I buy them from these old twin sisters down the road.”
“Well, maybe they’ll sell me a couple of hens?”
“They’re just the sweetest old ladies; you know, I’m sure they will!”
Debbie called and relayed my offer of ten bucks for two hens. She also told them she’d have me dispatch two of the Barred Rock chicks in exchange.
I was back in business! Fresh eggs out at the homestead!
She hung up, and I said, “I’ll need a waterer and some feed and some wood shavings and some straw.”
“We don’t have straw.”
“I’ll take everything else,” I said.
Ann and Mary Wilson looked like a couple of old hens themselves. They were identical twins, each with white hair, dark little mustaches like the one my grandmother had, and neck flab that drooped like wattles above their stained white shirts and house dresses. Mary reached out a claw and took the brown peeping bag I held out to her.
“I’m Gary, the guy Debbie called about. Those are the chicks,” I said, though both of them were already looking inside. Mary took the bag and disappeared inside their mobile home. Ann led me across the lawn. Their place, about a quarter mile down the road from the feed store, consisted of an acre or two. In their front yard they had a strawberry patch raised on a bed constructed of gray PVC pipe. In the back, they had a huge fenced compound of various shacks and gates and little doors—the telltale signs of chickens. There were probably thirty birds, some of them little Aracunas, but most of them the Golden Comets I was used to, and a few of them black sex-links like the one with which old Gussie had had his fling.
Scrambling around the big pen, it took me about ten minutes to catch two of the Golden Comets and stuff them in the box Debbie had given me. I felt a bit like a poacher, standing there in Ann and her sister’s chicken pen, snatching up her birds and stuffing them in a cardboard box. I handed her two fives and she gave one back.
“A chicken don’t cost more’n two-fifty,” she said. And then, as if to assure me of the bargain I’d just been made, “These birds’ll lay right on through winter.”
“Oh, I’m leaving in October,” I said, and then it occurred to me that these ladies might be the solution to my problem of what to do with the hens when I had to leave and head back east. As much as I’d been wondering where to get some hens, I’d also been pondering what to do with them once my residency ends. I wouldn’t slaughter them, and I couldn’t watch someone else do it either. I also couldn’t just let them loose in the woods to feed the cougars or coyotes or owls. And now it seemed I was about to kill two birds with one stone, though this was a cliché I could never say to Ann Wilson. “I could even return them to you in the fall. That is, if you’d want them.”
“Okay,” Ann said. “And I’ll give you your money back.”
“Oh, you won’t need to do that. They’ll keep me supplied with eggs all summer. So I’d be paying you for that.”
“You have a house for them?”
“Yes ma’am. There’s one out at the ranch.” I didn’t tell her it needed a door.
We walked back to my car, and I opened the rear door and loaded the box in beside the flat of lettuce and broccoli and celery I’d bought to plant in my garden. Before showing up there, I’d strapped Gus into his harness in the backseat and buckled the strap to the seatbelt to keep him from any mischief. Now he looked with curiosity over the seatback.
“Never mind,” I said to him. “You stay and be a good boy.” He sniffed, his brown eyes twinkling. “Stay,” I repeated.
Then Mary came out with a bird cage and in it the two chicks peeping. “We’re gonna have a rooster, Ann,” she clucked.
The three of us peered into the cage.
“How do you know?” I said. “They look exactly the same.” The little chicks could have been Ann and Mary seventy years ago.
“Look at his crop,” Mary said.
I wasn’t exactly sure what a crop was, and I felt ashamed to have been raising chickens for three years. “Oh yeah,” I said. “Look at that.”
Then Ann started regaling me with stories of the growing brazenness of the local cougar population, how they’d become so tame they were standing in people’s driveways, how last year one cat killed two of their hens, how another cat got run over on the road.
All this time my car was running, the air conditioning on so Gus would stay cool. I inched my way toward the car. I didn’t want to appear to be unfriendly or in a rush to go. But I was in a rush to go. I still had a two-hour ride back to the cabin, and daylight was waning. I realized then that Debbie had charged me for a bag of feed but that I hadn’t loaded one in my car. The perfect excuse to go.
The old twins held the cage of new twins and wished me luck.
“I’ll bring the hens back in the fall, if all goes well,” I said.
“Want some eggs to take back with you?”
Never one to turn down fresh eggs, I said I’d take some. Ann went to a fridge on their porch and took out a dozen and opened the carton. “See, these are brown eggs, like you’ll get.”
“I sure do thank you, ladies. I should go get that feed and head back. I’ve got a long ride out to the cabin.”
I opened the back door to put the eggs in my cooler, and I saw something funny. My lettuce plants were tipped over and the back of Gus’s head was sticking out of the box holding the hens. There were his two droopy ears. He turned and I saw the wild look in his eye. There were feathers all caught in his beard. There was blood.
“Gus! What did you do?” I said desperately.
His harness was tangled around him. He made a move to dive back in the box. I climbed in and tried pulling him out. The harness was twisted and tight. I heard a whimpering sound. I heaved him over the seat, but already he was trying to get back over, his tongue hanging out between his pearly canines. Behind me Ann and Mary must have been wondering what I was wrestling with. I slid the box out and looked inside. One hen was dead, its eye closed shut. The other was huddled in the corner, blood pooling in its open beak. She was alive but hurt. I could see wounds on her body where Gus had bitten down, stripping off feathers.
“My dog,” I tried to explain. “I thought I had him all strapped in tight, but he climbed over the seat and got at them while we were talking.”
“This one’s dead,” Ann said, lifting the limp body out of the box. “He broke her neck.” Mary took the dead bird and held it. “He must have gotten this one by the throat, too. She’s bleeding from her mouth.”
“I know,” I said. “I’m so sorry. I thought he was secured.”
“Let’s see if she can walk,” Ann said. She placed the wounded bird onto the lawn. It took a few wobbly steps and sat down.
A minute ago, I’d been elated. Two birds with one stone. Now, two birds with one dog. “Damned dog,” I tried. “I’m so sorry about this.”
“Some dogs’ll do that,” Mary offered. Their own dog, a little, salt-and-pepper, wire-haired mutt with a protruding row of bottom teeth, looked up at me as if to say, I don’t.
“Would you like me to bury her?” I pointed to the bloody, limp chicken hanging from Mary’s hand.
“No, I’ll bury her later,” Ann said. “Do you want to try again and get two more?”
Here’s where I should have said no. Ann’s question was stitched with reluctance and kindly obligation. But I’m greedy when it comes to chickens and fresh eggs, and I’d been thinking so long about having hens at the cabin. “Okay,” I said, but now I wanted to get out of there, and quickly. “But maybe I should just take one and see how it goes. I’ll keep her on the floor of the front seat with me.”
This time I took a black one.
Once a chicken-loving Wheaten Terrier sinks his teeth into living feathered flesh, the thrill of it wedges in his doggy mind like a stuck bone. He works at it and it works at him. He can taste the blood on his tongue, feel the hunt in tooth and paw. His brown eyes flicker, his tongue pants and lathers, his upper lip curls away from his teeth with something like a maniacal grin, and his nose darts through the air like a heat-seeking missile.
The whole ride home he stood like this, peeking over the seat at the box on the floor.
“You stay!” I said, and laid the bag of feed atop the box in a feeble effort to cover the smell of the bird.
Two hours later, I repeated this useless command at both gates while I unlocked them. With the falling sun hitting the windshield I could see nothing but the reflection of the trees and sky. Gus could have leapt the seat and been digging in, again. But miraculously, he stayed.
By the time we made it to the cabin and I’d unloaded all the stuff I’d bought in town, it was beginning to get dark. There was no way I could get the smokehouse renovated before night fell. Even if I’d had power tools, it would have taken an hour just to repair the door. I put the black hen in the only safe place I could think of, despite the fact that I knew Bradley wouldn’t approve: I locked her in the tool shed.
This morning Gus rose with the sun and ran straight for the door. I figured he had to do one of two things. Or both. Wearing nothing but boxers and sandals, one of the benefits of having no neighbors in a forty-mile radius, I pushed open the back screen door and followed him outside. He made a bee-line to the tool shed, sniffing at the crack beneath the door, already panting.
I knew it was going to be a long day.
I’m not sure what’s easier—catching a loose Wheaten Terrier or a loose chicken, neither of whom wants to be caught. While the hen was safe, though probably petrified, behind the locked tool shed door, I did my best to cajole Gus back inside. My usual tactic is to say something like “Come get the cookie” or “Come fetch the stick.” If I’m holding neither cookie nor stick, this tactic inevitably fails. It sometimes fails when I am holding cookie or stick. Gus, I’ve found, usually knows what I’m up to. When he was a puppy and I was a new dog owner, I made the mistake of chasing after him when he did this. Now I do what little is in my power to make him come to me. Gus is a very intelligent dog, and my own self-respect and pride dictate that I outwit him whenever possible. After much scolding, he gave up the tool shed door and tore off into the meadow, leaping like a deer through the unmown grass in a wheat-colored flash, a veritable tick magnet. He made a lap around the garden fence, then up the road, into the woods, back down the road, through the meadow and back to the tool shed door, where he stopped, panting heavily. Here was my ace in the hole. “Gus, you want a drink? You want some water?” In the pantry beyond the screen door, I ran the tap. And in he came.
The chicken presented a more difficult challenge. You’d think that any man who can outwit a blood-lusting terrier could outwit a chicken, one of the dumbest animals on the planet. But a tool shed is a dark place with many unreachable nooks behind rakes and gas cans and chainsaws and countless other obstacles. And a chicken is quick. Ten minutes of prodding with a hoe handle, and I reconnoitered. It occurred to me that what had worked for dog might work for bird. So I filled the waterer and a bowl full of feed and placed them in the open doorway. Then I positioned myself behind the door, a laundry basket poised over head, ready to drop my makeshift net. Three minutes passed and my arm was aching, stiffening. I dropped the laundry basket and went and sat on the steps of the cabin. From the darkness of the tool shed I heard a few tentative clucks. I replied in my best chicken impersonation, something like, “Dut-dut-dut-dut-doot-doot-doot.” Then it occurred to me that here I was talking to a chicken when I should have been doing something productive and dignified, like writing—my whole reason for being here, right? What the hell was I doing letting my dog ravage some poor ladies’ chickens, wasting hours of my day trying to coax a bird from a tool shed, preparing to spend countless more hours converting a smokehouse to a chicken coop? For what? For eggs? A buck-fifty a dozen at the supermarket? I should have been inside writing some oft-to-be-anthologized poem, or an essay so brilliant it would find its way into Best American Essays 2005. I should have been penning a short story worthy of the coveted font of The New Yorker. It’s no wonder I’d never enjoy any of those accolades; I’m a man who spends his time in the pursuit of frivolity and self-imposed exasperation.
Then I saw black feathers, and I was up and running.
She let out a squawk and bolted for the woods, and I knew I needed to head her off, or she’d be making a nice lunch for the pair of peregrine falcons nesting nearby. From the living room window issued Gus’s animated yelps, and I could see him there, his bearded face peering down with fury that I should be engaging in the very behavior he’d been dreaming of since yesterday. How dare I? So, like a wheaten terrier, albeit a maladroit and ham-fisted one clutching a green laundry basket, I chased the black chicken till I was out of breath and she was safe and sound beneath the footworks of the cabin.
We shot this scene with more than half a dozen takes, but in between chases, I rebuilt the smokehouse door, threw down some cedar shavings, built a nest box and filled it with straw, and arranged waterer and feeder on the new cozy floor. While house smelled a tad bit like burnt hickory, it would make a lovely, dry home for my soot-colored hen. If I could ever catch her.
Gus meanwhile had gone plumb out of his mind. Darting from deck to living room window to bedroom window—wherever he might catch a glimpse of the hen happily scratching for slugs and grubs and seeds—he had worked himself to a literal lather. Heat pulsed from his thick coat, his tongue dripped hot spit. He hadn’t eaten all day. And when I’d let him out in the morning he hadn’t pooped or peed. Yesterday he’d gotten a taste of living flesh, had felt the small bones crack between his teeth, and now his sole purpose for living had manifested itself in the shape of a dark, plump fowl, a shape which had pecked at his mind so long that he would find no solace until he consumed it, until the black bird filled the black void of his biliousness.
I went in to have a very late lunch and to try to console him. But Gus could not be consoled. He kept up his frustrated dash from window to window all through my turkey sandwich. I put my dish in the sink and went to join him on the couch to see the object of his obsession, and there she was, like a well-behaved lady, standing in the doorway to the coop I’d fashioned! Before Gus could lick his chops, I snuck outside, skipped to the smokehouse-turned-coop, and gently closed the door. I consider this one of the great achievements of my writing residency at the Dutch Henry Homestead.
Dinner went much the way lunch had. I’d never seen Gus like this. So, I let him out, off-leash, figuring he’d see no chicken and move on to other things. He ran straight for the smokehouse door.
And he’s out there now, sniffing, sniffing, sniffing.
I can see myself already, pulling up to Ann and Mary’s mobile home, handing them back the cardboard box heavy with my great regret and the living effigy of Gus’s lust for blood.
April 27th, 2005
After two weeks of not playing my guitar (on the drive across country it was too much hassle to unload it from the packed truck), I finally took it out yesterday and noodled around. It felt good to start calluses again, to strum out on the deck. I wrote a little Dutch Henry ditty yesterday. But today I composed a nice chord progression and wrote a much better song, entitled “Grinning Ear to Ear.” I liked it enough that I set up the Fast Track and microphone and made a recording. I promise this blog won’t turn out like the last one, full of songs on which I sing badly, but here it is:
Grinning Ear to Ear
April 28, 2005
I’m losing track of time. Beginning this entry, I had to count back to the day I arrived and then add weeks. Even then, I wasn’t sure whether today was Wednesday or Thursday. There’s great freedom in this, but there’s something unsettling about it, too. I’m compulsive, and like to know minute, hour, day, week. Following Lang Cook’s advice, I’ve stopped wearing a watch, and somehow I haven’t yet found myself looking down at my bare wrist.
But I have set up two clocks in the house. The first is one I brought from home, a small wooden clock a student gave me one year for Christmas. This one sits atop a bookshelf in the living room area. The other clock is one I found a few nights ago while rummaging around. One of these huge bird clocks (I think they’re made by Audubon, and you get one for free if you subscribe to their magazine, or something), I was elated when I found it. Yes! A clock for the bedroom! With the skylight above and a huge window to the right of the bed, and with the walls painted white, I’d been waking in the mornings to pale light of indistinguishable hour. If it was six, it was too early to get up. If it was eight, I probably should. But I had no way of knowing, unless I climbed out of bed, walked to the dresser and checked my watch. Then, of course, I’d be up. So the bird clock seemed the solution. These bird clocks are cool in theory: every hour is depicted by a different bird and when the hour strikes, you hear the bird’s call. Sharen and I had one at our house, and after a couple of days we tore it off the den wall and hung in the downstairs bathroom, a room we never used. Its hands stopped at the moment of battery death. But here I was, excited to have found a clock. I loaded in the three AA batteries and set the time. The hands swung round and a chickadee called. Gus barked. A song sparrow twittered. Gus barked. It occurred to me that these damned birds would not only keep me up all night with their yammering, but that Gus would awaken and bark every hour on the hour. And Northern Mockingbirds aren’t meant to sing at 2:00 AM anyway. Like any sane bird, they’re sleeping. So, out came the two AA batteries that make the birds call.
Now I wake each day to the sounds of real birds, and the time is clearly visible, even with these deteriorating eyes of mine. I’ve propped the silenced bird clock on the top of the dresser, dead center.
The latest I’ve slept is 8:00 AM. You’d think that with nowhere to be and no set agenda for my day, I’d wake at 10:00 or 11:00 or noon. But I haven’t slept that late since college. Undergraduate college, that is. Here, I typically awaken between 6:00 and 7:00, and some mornings hit the inner snooze button and go back to dreaming for ten more minutes.
The days pass slowly, though I’m not bored. Here’s what I did today (I’ll leave out the bathroom parts); times, of course, are rounded:
7:00 AM: Got up, made coffee, lit a fire in the cook stove to keep my coffee pot warm, let Gus out.
7:15: Made a bowl of oatmeal, completed a New York Times crossword.
7:30: Fired up laptop to continue work on an essay.
9:00: Put on my mowing clothes (grass-stained pants and sweatshirt) and finished mowing the lower meadow while Gus romped all over.
10:30: Went back inside and had a piece of apple cobbler bread and a glass of OJ. Futzed around, wrote out what I hope will be my last mortgage check on the house.
11:00: Had a long, hot shower.
11:30: Brought some feed out to the hen, who was sitting in her nest laying her first homestead egg.
11:35: Filled up bird feeders and hung them on the deck, added more sugar to hummingbird feeders, watched hummers drink.
11:40: Loaded rake, loppers, bow saw in car and cleared road all the way to the lower gate, Gus romping alongside the whole way. Also raked leaves around upper house.
1:30: Made lunch: steak quesadillas, chips and salsa.
2:00: Watered garden, played with Gus in the meadow.
2:30: Read two chapters in Lewis and Clark book.
3:30: Napped on couch (the book has that effect on me).
4:00: Practiced new song on front porch, had a cup of Yerba Buena tea (which I picked along trail the other day).
4:30: Got the egg from the hen’s nest, changed into fleece, did dishes.
5:00: Called mom and dad, puffed on the meerschaum out on the deck.
5:30: Fed Gus, started my dinner (Mexican rice and the last of the left-over steak, tossed with fried onions).
6:00: Ate dinner, thumbed through Poets & Writers.
7:00: Did dishes, took Gus out for one final romp with soccer ball.
7:30: Chopped kindling.
8:00: Fired up laptop, wrote this blog entry.
Plan for the rest of the night: light lamps, light fire, watch Paste DVD, look at stars, read more about the adventures of Lewis and Clark, pet Gus, fall asleep.
I know, I should be writing more. I need a rainy day!
Ten things I need to do (and in no particular order):
1. Take more pictures.
2. Take out binoculars and add to bird list.
3. Go mushroom hunting (haven’t seen a single morel, and I fear I’m too late).
4. Fish creek for Chinook salmon.
5. Finish the damned Lewis and Clark book.
6. Finish incomplete short story I’ve been writing.
7. Start writing something big.
8. See if I can cross creek to get to The Corral (huge meadow area, so called because the U.S. Cavalry corralled horses there).
9. Visit Ashland.
10. Buy a guide to wildflowers.
Over and out.
April 30, 2005
Last day of April today, and I feel bittersweet about it. April’s been nice. My starting month, a month with nice daytime temperatures (hasn’t been above 80 and most days have been low 70s), cozy-cool morning and evening temperatures, and not as much rain as I expected. And no mosquitoes! I know they’re coming, and I know in June and July, I’ll be wishing it were April again. The only bugs have been bees, several varieties. Carpenter bees have been buzzing around beneath the house, scoping out the insulation for nesting spots. Yellowjackets, though I suspect they’re a different variety, because they’re quite tame and don’t sting, come in the cabin to visit, and then I open the door and let them out. I was even brave enough to snatch one bee’s wings between two fingers and assist it out the door. No sting. I think Gus got stung the other day. He was playing with something in the grass and gave a yelp. I was terrified at first that a rattlesnake had bit him. When I got to him, he swiped at his snout and then seemed to forget about it. That’ll teach him to try to eat bees.
Just about every night and morning I’ve made fires in the woodstove. Some nights it’s dropped down into the 40’s, and I love it. Good sleeping weather. I have the windows open all day and then close them up at night. And the fires have been most cozy. After an initial problem with getting proper draft, I finally got the flue adjusted right, and now I’ve mastered the art of making a nice madrone-wood fire. Madrone is a hardwood of the Pacific Northwest that dries and splits and burns beautifully. The wood shed is full of it.
Yesterday I wrote for about seven hours, sixteen pages of a short story as of yet untitled. I’m not sure it’ll be appropriate for posting on the blog, so if you want to read it, shoot me an email. Of course, I’ll want to finish it first.
I took today off from writing (except for this blog entry). All that staring at the laptop yesterday gave me a headache, my first since arriving here. And only the day before yesterday I’d been telling my parents that I haven’t had a headache since I’ve been out here. Go figure. Instead of writing, I tilled the garden bed Lang and Martha used last year. I fired up the Pony again, and it took me for a ride, but an hour later I’d tilled all of it but the rows of last year’s celery, lettuce and onions, all of which are good. Who knew you could harvest a garden for two years? The lettuce is a little bitter, but maybe it’s supposed to taste like that. I don’t know. The onions I use just for scallions. Also good. In the newly tilled bed, I planted starters of broccoli and celery and I also transplanted some red Romaine which I’d planted too close together in another bed. The soil in this spot was much better than in the other two: more loamy, more organic matter, less clay.
One of my garden beds is doing poorly. Two cucumber plants have died of some kind of mold or mildew, which has also spread to two tomato plants. I’m hoping everything else will survive. It’s probably just as well that I lost these plants. I’m sure I won’t need four cucumber plants anyway. I’d have pickles coming out my ears.
Another task today was laundry. I tried firing up the old agitator washer, which according to Bradley has not been used in over a decade. I set up the hoses, started the generator, plugged the washer in, and watched in dismay as the motor puffed smoke like George Burns. It smelled like wires cooking, so I pulled the plug. The last thing I wanted to deal with was a fire. So I wheeled her back to her corner, put the green cover back on, and filled up the utility sink with hot water and detergent. If you’ve never hand-washed clothes, you’re lucky. It’s an exhausting endeavor, especially the wringing and squeezing. Try it with a pair of blue jeans. From here on out, I think I’ll just do laundry in town, unless it’s an item or two. There is something nice about line-dried clothes. I guess I could wash in town and bring the clothes back wet and hang them. It would certainly save me time and quarters.
In a previous post I promised to take more pictures. So here are some shots from the last few days, with captions:
The home of Dutch Hen. I know, it looks like Appalachia, but if I move the board from the front of the door, it looks a little better. I leave it there to keep Gus from breaking in. He still wants to do the Shake-n-Bake with her, but if I yell enough, he gives up.
Here’s what I’m living in. No, I swear I’m not in Appalachia. It looks small and cluttered, but it’s really not. To give a bit of perspective, the round black thing on the deck is a Weber grill. And the thing coming off the right side of the deck is an 8-foot solar panel. I keep the frequently used power tools beneath the deck so that they’re handy and stay dry.
In this dryer, located within the fenced garden, I’ve been drying bay leaves for cooking and yerba buena and mint for tea. It works!
You lay the leaves on screen racks and then close them inside the dryer, which is painted black and soaks up the sun’s rays. There are various ventilation openings to keep air moving through. Herbs will dry within two or three days, depending on how sunny the days are.
My folks and my sister did some research on this herb. Apparently, American Indians used it to treat pain. I tried it as a tea the other night, and it was pleasantly minty and mellow.
The reptile life around here is plentiful and varied. These are just two of the many lizards I’ve seen. My North American Wildlife book wasn’t all that helpful in identifying these critters. They might be Sagebrush Lizards. I’ve also seen one Alligator Lizard, which at ten or twelve inches long, has got to be one of the largest lizards in these parts. I’ve only seen one snake, a garter.
My book failed me with this flower, too. I really need a western wildflower guide. Lang told me that he’s made an online guide using photos he took. I’ll consult that when he sends me the link.
This looks like a primrose to me, but again the book was no help.
Here’s a shot of the upper cabin from the meadow its deck looks out upon. Nice ferns!
“Do the jitterbug down in muskrat land….” No, that’s not a muskrat. It’s Gus taking a swim. Don’t worry; he hasn’t eaten any of the toxic newts.
Tan oak? Live oak? Some kind of oak. A pretty oak in the upper meadow.
Here’s a view of my spread from the road near the upper house. The huge fir tree is blocking the view of the cabin. My garden is barely visible in the distance to the left of that tree. The structure you see is the old chicken coop, which would have been too much work to repair and too big for Dutch Hen.
The next four photos are of Gussie in all his glory. He’s off-leash all the time now, except after dark. He picks up ticks and grass and burs and brambles, but he cleans up nicely. The worst part about him being off-leash is that he runs in poison oak, and then I pet him. Despite the fact that I’m constantly washing with Tecnu, I still got a few blisters on my wrists and forearms. And it’s itchy.
On road, as we begin our afternoon walk.
“Come on, good boy!”
“Rokay, ticks, rop aboard.”
Snorfling after a digger squirrel.
May 1, 2005
May blew in coolly on the backside of last night’s thunderstorm, the first since I arrived. Thunder and lightning lingered above the canyon as darkness fell. I woke to fog and mists and what looked like a gray day of rain. But by nine the sun was out.
Flipping through Poets & Writers after breakfast, I saw a call for submissions for an anthology of poems on the myth of Demeter and Persephone, and I couldn’t resist and wrote one. It’s a revisionist poem of apostrophe; in it, Demeter addresses her daughter, who’s been living in the underworld for a long time, married to Hades. But to Demeter’s mind, Persephone went looking to get abducted and had been obsessed with death since she was a young girl. It’s a little racy, but aren’t all the Greek myths? In fact, if you think about it, Persephone is abducted and ravished by her own uncle. Here’s the poem. Wish me luck with the anthology. The address was Broadway in NYC, so maybe it’ll be a nice book.
Mother to Daughter
Little whore, little deceiver,
let the rest believe what they will.
You knew enough about fissures,
and that flowers rose
from black ash and flashed
their sex to bees before
they withered. I watched
you sift dust through fingers
and thrust that dirty hand
beneath your linen smalls.
You’d always been enchanted
by talk of shades and souls,
lingering too long at graves,
picking through rotted breasts
of crows for cold keepsakes—
bones for wishes, hearts to range
like stones along a shelf.
I left you seeds, tried my best
to teach the ways of rain
and light. But like the primrose
you bloomed at night.
Through the crack in the door
I saw you scoop pitch
and smear it, swallow shadows,
paint yourself with soot.
The tines of your hands
had tilled your hot bed
and you were ready to be seeded.
It wasn’t ransom I offered
but a handsome dowry—
food for every other mother
and winter for my spite.
Satisfied that I’d done my work for the day, I loaded up a day pack and the fishing rods and Gus and I went down to the river. It was an outrageously ticky affair. By the time we reached the river, I’d flicked some twenty ticks off my pants and sleeves. The buggers cling to the ends of long blades of grass and latch on when you pass. The river was muddy and high after last night’s rain, so I didn’t even bother trying with the flyrod. I threw a couple of little spinners for about forty minutes and then decided to hike to a nearby creek to see if there were any Chinook salmon at its mouth, where it empties into the Rogue. It’s about a mile hike from my swimming hole, and the trail is scenic, traveling high along the Rogue and offering miles-long vistas. Apparently, it’s also a hangout for black-legged ticks. Every thirty feet I checked my legs and had to flick them off. Then at one point I thought one had bitten me on the neck. I tried to use my sunglasses as a mirror, and my neck looked clear. I felt something there and pulled on it, and it hurt. I figured it was a skin tab irritated by my camera strap. Unlike the Rogue, the creek was crystal clear and looked like a nice place for wild brook trout, but I didn’t bother trying. From thirty feet above the mouth of the creek, I looked for salmon, but didn’t see any. Still, I snapped a fly down into the water a half-dozen times. Nothing. I wasn’t wearing a watch and had no idea what time it was, and I was suddenly afraid that we’d be walking back up the steep DH trail in the dark. After swimming, running, romping and hiking, Gus was all worn out, and for the first time ever he let me take the lead for about a half-mile on the hike back. Again, ticks everywhere. I was exhausted by the time we got back the cabin. The last half-mile is steep, a real killer. Before going inside, I stopped on the steps and searched Gus’s fur, which was still wet from swimming in the river. I removed and killed about ten ticks. Then I took him inside to give him a bath. I wanted to wash off any remaining ticks and wash off the poison oak he’d surely run through. I checked myself in the bathroom mirror, and lo and behold, the thing on my neck was a tick! It was embedded and it hurt. A trick I’ve employed on Gus is to smear the tick with Vaseline or something like it, the idea being that the tick, unable to breathe, will loosen its hold. I used Neosporin. It didn’t loosen, so I pulled it out with tweezers. Immediately the spot swelled up like a huge mosquito bite. And it hurt even more. Then I read in my wilderness medicine booklet that the old wive’s remedy of using Vaseline actually encourages the tick to release more saliva and toxin into the bite. I think that’s what happened. This book suggests gently pulling the tick out with tweezers, pulling straight and down, no twisting, so as not to leave any piece of the tick in the bite zone. I cleansed the bite with hydrogen peroxide and then, following the advice of my book, a towelette of benzalkonium chloride. In the bathtub, I found three more ticks on Gus and washed them down the drain. I soaped him up, rinsed him off, and put him on the deck to dry. I showered and thoroughly searched myself for any other nasty parasites. I was clean. But the bite was still swollen and hurting. Out on the deck I used the grooming table to do a closer inspection of Gus. I found and killed about eight more ticks. Now I was freaking out about the tick bite. Why had it swelled up? My wilderness medicine book mentioned several diseases carried by ticks, including Lyme, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Colorado Fever, a couple of Latin-sounding nasties, and tick paralysis. The latter had me most freaked out. Later, I got a call from my sister, and I was relieved she called. She’s a bit of a witch doctor, practicing with success homeopathy and other alternative remedies.
“Put a potato on it,” she said. “It’ll draw out the toxin and reduce the swelling.”
So I’m typing this now with a slice of potato on my neck.
The she got online and did some research. It turns out that the black-legged tick does carry Lyme disease, but that it’s rarer in the Pacific Northwest than in the East. And, an infected tick needs to be embedded for 24-48 hours to infect a person. My tick was sucking on me for about an hour. She also found out that tick paralysis happens only in small children.
I’ve been bitten by ticks before, including deer ticks back East, and I’ve never contracted disease. Let’s hope the same will be true with this tick bite. I’m hoping that I’ll wake up in the morning and it’ll look better. I feel fine, too, aside from the tenderness around the bite area. I’m drinking some yerba buena tea, too, which might help with the pain, if the American Indians were right about that herb.
I think I’ll try to avoid going down to the river until the hotter weather comes and the tick population diminishes. I’m not catching any fish anyway!
Going into town tomorrow to pay bills and do my other business. If the weather is nice, we might drive on to Ashland and spend a night there. I’m eager to see the place.
Dutch Hen gave me my third egg today!
I’m loving the creative outpouring: poems, essays, a story, songs, the blog.
Oh, here are photos I took today on our river hike:
This is our swimming hole at the Rogue. Good place to fish, too, according to Bradley, though I’ve had no luck.
Looking downstream from the swimming hole.
Gussie loves to swim!
Gus doing Gus stuff.
The bridge near the swimming hole.
And here comes Guster!
View of river from the trail to the creek. Probably two miles of river.
Trailside flowers. Probably swarming with ticks.
I think this is a May Beetle.
The last four are more wildflowers I can’t identify until I get a decent guide.