Friday, September 28, 2007

Re Learning the Seasons

Finding my way in this new life has involved learning a lot of new things. Most difficult and most important has been re-learning the things I knew so well that I didn't realize I had ever learned them at all, such as weather and the seasons. Storms here are nothing like a thunderstorm in Indiana, and the wind is altogether different. In Indiana, I could feel a storm coming. A bruised sky, a drop in pressure, an upside down dance of the leaves of the Silver Maple in the front yard of my childhood home were all part of a familiar landscape. The storm would roll over the prairies and howl and gnash lightning teeth and then pass on: dramatic, powerful, sometimes devastatingly violent, but short-lived and, most of all, familiar. Here the wind may saw away at nerve edges for days and then disappear with no drama.

My husband can read mare's tail and tadpoles and mackerel sky here, but in Indiana I could look up into a milky night sky in early December and say, "That is a snow sky," and not be at all surprised the following morning to see the light dusting of snow scuttering along the pavement and hiding against the sun in the last few long patches of still-green grass. Without thinking about it, I could look at the sky and know that it would be gone by 10am.

Although each season could have its anomalies, Indiana has a spring, summer, winter and fall. Spring is mud and cold and grey with splashes of snow or balmy summer hours all mixed in like a woman trying to decide which dress to wear. It can mean flash floods or tornadoes, or both. It means also the first signs of colour after drabness as daffodils and snowdrops and little blue squill pierce the dark brown earth and the grass starts to green up again. I can--or at least I could--sense all those signs of change. I used to know that by the time the rain started, it was already too late to avoid the flash floods as the waters rose in the underpasses and low bridges. I knew the rhythms of waiting out the floods, riding out the storms, and anticipating the last snow storm.

Summer in Indiana is hot, usually slow to arrive and late to leave. The unbearable heat of the Dog Days of August erodes the welcome with which the first few hot days were greeted. Summer is swimming pools and green grass and vacation time and outdoor concerts and fireworks and farmer's markets and red ripe juicy tomatoes that dribble their juice down your chin when you bite into them, and corn on the cob, fresh from the field into the pot of boiling water. Until I experienced the white nights of the north's long summer days, I thought Indiana summer days were long.

Late summer into Fall was my favorite season. It was a breath of fresh air after the frenzied heat of summer, yet the days were still warm and long. I loved watching the colours of the leaves. One small scarlet maple in my back yard rewarded me with the first banners announcing the change in seasons. It was the only season in which I enjoyed the inevitable delays in traffic on the long commute into the office because I could take a moment each day to note the shift from green with yellow and red touches to scarlet blazing with yellow undertones fading into ochre and then the first hints of brown until brown, skeletal leaves fought with the wind to linger on the emptying branches.

I loved gardening in the fall, teasing a second or third crop of spinach or cool tolerant crops out of the warm summer earth before the cold of winter froze the ground hard. Cold frames and improvised shelter could often sustain lettuce into January. More than once I cleared a thick layer of snow off the top of a cold frame to let the winter sun warm the leaves within. That little bit of captive, cozzened greenery was my talisman to ensure the return of the light. Two slow-growing dwarf spruce trees in double insulated pots sat like guardians either side of the door into my home in Indiana adorned with tiny lights wound around them top to bottom. The lights and the fragrance of their evergreen leaves helped sustain me through the Indiana winter.

Each of the seasons and I had grown accustomed to each other; we had an understanding. Leaving Indiana meant coming to an understanding in a place where the first cold sea winds of winter browned the leaves of a little spruce tree huddled safely, so I thought, in the shelter of a wall and a cottage wall. The tree and I struggled on into the first spring, but neither one of us thrived. A cold frame, relying on the heat from a winter sun, was useful only to protect the last summer squash from an early frost. I ate it reluctantly as if saying goodbye to it meant saying goodbye to summer and light and sun.

With time I am learning to read the signs of the seasons here. The seasons are not as distinct even for those who can read the sky and the sea as the seasons in Indiana. Learning that was my first lesson. Once again, I find myself enjoying the particular pleasures of fall--or Back End as it is called here. I will always miss leaves and trees and their colour shifting artistry. When I go south I drink in the spectacle, but the most beautiful colours of the hills occur in fall. I have taken photos and made sketches of a particularly beautiful stretch of road between here and Thurso where a cluster of rich green evergreen trees snuggles up against brown-purple heathered hills. The hues shift slightly whether the sun is in full flow in a blue sky or wearing a grey mantle, but the richness of the colours remains. I have not yet captured it and perhaps never will, but I know that it is part of this season. And yesterday as we drove along a back road I thought the red rowan berries winked at me as if to confirm that we have come to an understanding.

Monday, September 17, 2007

A Night in Avoch

When my friend had a chore to do in Dingwall and she asked if I would like to go with her and make a trip out of it, I knew it would be a good time; I just had no idea what kind of a good time. The photos are snaps of the view out our window in the little bed and breakfast in a fishing village south of here called Avoch (pronounced something like awk). My friend found it by happy accident when the B and B next door was not able to accommodate us. It would be hard to imagine a lovelier setting. That was the first treat of the adventure. The day was as beautiful as the photo suggests with soft air, bright sun, just a bit of coolness in the air to say that Autumn was coming. A particular treat for me was the sight of trees, deciduous trees with leaves in colours of the season as I know it. I love the heather and the barley and the lovely grey stonescapes, but I miss trees. In my zeal, I planted an orphaned Acer (genus of Maple trees) that I bought for a pound at the local charity shop. Although it is only 13 inches tall and has only three leaves, the leaves managed to stay on the tree and to turn a cheery red within the protection of the walled garden. These full size trees put the brave little Acer's display to shame, but they have many years on her. I believe in her. In time she will rival these grand dames.
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Avoch was a treasure as well. We walked the old streets of the village along the harbour admiring the colourful, well kept fishing cottages with flowers everywhere. Fuschia, roses, forget me nots, nasturtiums and calendula tumbled out of window boxes and pots on door steps, which filled the air with both scent and colour as we walked by.
We looked up my friend's former driving instructor and as I have come to expect as part of life in Scotland, we were accepted graciously despite not being expected. He had recently re married and his wife has an infectious good humour. They showed us the room where they often do Karaoke on the weekend and somehow it seemed a perfectly reasonable thing to be singing a verse of "Wake Up Little Susie."
By the time we left their good company, the only restaurant still open in the village was an Indian takeaway. We improvised a picnic on a bench by the harbor illuminated from behind us by the street lights and silhouetted y the lights on the far shore, which cast silvery shadows on the ripples of the retreating tide. A cat unabashedly stopped by to see if any of our dinner was available for sharing and then moved off with no apparent disgruntlement when no food was forthcoming.
The last treasure of the evening in Avoch was talking uninterrupted with my friend. Although she is my oldest friend--in duration, not in years--in this part of the world, we had never spent time on our own away from our homes and husbands. In keeping with the unwritten laws of women's conversations, we talked freely and widely and as long as we could keep our eyes open. I talked about my old life and so with my friend I talked that part of me into this new landscape. I heard stories of her life in a time and place of matrons and starched caps, so that I knew some of her former selves as well. Fortified with our adventure, our stories, and a wonderful breakfast, we went on to slay the dreaded chore, which if done quickly enough, would allow time for a visit to a yarn shop and more talking.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Sheep Tipping

I promised my friend Keith that I would discover the truth about cow tipping as I became a proper cowgirl. As an added bonus for all my urban readers, I'll throw in a bit about sheep tipping, too.

Cow tipping is one of those stories that someone made up who had never been very close to a cow. The idea is that clever folks sneak up on unsuspecting cattle and tip them over and have a great laugh about it. This is the kind of thing that works best if your entire knowledge of cattle is limited to those little plastic models that come with the Complete 500 Piece Farm Set with Barn and Tractor for only $9.99. I probably got mine in the mail from Battle Creek, Michigan with a whole bunch of cereal box tops.

By the time I stopped collecting box tops for surprises in the mail, I had figured out that cow tipping was just one of those jokes that lingers because it is so preposterous. City kids say to country folks, "so is it true on Saturday nights out in the country you go cow tipping for fun?" and the country kids invariably go along with it with something like, "You city kids don't know what you're missing." And then everyone laughs.

Keith loves a joke. Note, I did not say a good joke--Keith will wring humour from some of the silliest things, so naturally he asked me to check out cow tipping and I solemnly promised that I would. Imagine my surprise when I asked my husband about cow tipping and he said yes, he has tipped cows. But let me quickly clarify: cow tipping or, more likely bull tipping, is done so that the animal's feet can be seen by a vet. The only incidents I know of are a bull whose hooves needed trimming. Done carefully from a safety point of view for the vet and for the sake of the animal and of course to avoid the damage that a reluctant animal could inflict on the would-be tipper. A far cry from the stories of hapless cows and pranks, but there it is: the truth about cow tipping for Keith.

Now sheep are a different story. A sheep can roll onto its back and if it gets stuck there it can die. Because it cannot chew the cud in this position, the grass in its rumen gets gassy and the stomach swells up. Sheep tipping---actually, more like sheep rolling, is a rescue maneuver. It is not as easy as it sounds.

We were out for a drive and I noticed a sheep on its back. I mentioned this, still not sure whether the sheep tipping stories were true or brought out for my benefit. I am by nature very gullible, and, with my previous knowledge of animals limited to cats and plastic farm animals, I am a very easy mark. But sheep on their backs is a real farming problem.

We turned the car around and spotted the sheep, who seemed dangerously still. Morris honked the horn and her legs flailed and she rocked from side to side but made no progress toward getting upright. With more enthusiasm than sense, I was out of the car and climbing over a gate with my eye on the sheep and only a passing thought for my church dress and sensible pumps. My sympathies were very much with the sheep until I realized as I got nearer that the sheep was not aware of my intentions and not inclined to accept help being tipped back into an upright position. I also became aware of just how vigorously she was kicking.

"Don't be afraid of her," Morris coached from the other side of the gate, and then, "Make sure you hold her head because she can hurt you with her head." Although useful knowledge, it was not reassuring. I remembered the day my Wee Calfie nearly knocked me unconscious with a casual blow of her head. I managed to grasp the sheep's head in my hands as if I were about to perform a Vulcan mind link and turned her head toward the fence and where her legs seemed best able to go to get back under her and away from me. In an instant she was up and away.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Three Kittens: A Parable

Working cats, like working people everywhere, have varying degrees of success and ease. Life in the North of Scotland should never be considered easy, especially for cats making it on their own. I have seen them working the tall grass along the farm road for little varmints that I hope they think are tasty or pouncing on baby rabbits, where, I must admit, my loyalties are somewhat divided. I trust that there are some large, sturdy cats working in the barns that may from time to time stand off the larger rodents. I try not to think too much about the large rodents other than a generic gratitude for those sturdy cats.

I especially admire the hardworking single mothers of the barn cat clan. They need all the wile and strength of the rat catcher cats and the efficiency to do that job quickly to feed and protect their kittens--a bit like Ginger Rogers, dancing with Fred Astaire but doing it backwards and in high heels. I leave food for the cats and always increase the amount and the availability when I become aware of a mother and kittens. From time to time apparently orphaned kittens appear in the barn or elsewhere on the steading and then I step in to try to fill the big paws of their mother.

I don't know what happened to Ninja and the five little kittens behind the cistern in the walled garden. I left food for them, but I must have gotten too close for Ninja's comfort. She and the kittens disappeared. I hope her distrust has served her well. I am in a minority here in my admiration for cats, so I do not take offense when cats choose to eat and run.

My husband found this latest set of kittens first in their home behind the fertilizer bags in the barn. By the time even the most observant human sees kittens, they have probably been through two or three moves. These kittens may also have been more obvious because they were hungry and looking for mother-food bringer. Hunger disarms us all. He began feeding them in the time-trusted farm way---leftovers. So these little carnivores began their orphan life much like Oliver, eating porridge.

Hungry, helpless kittens cannot afford to be picky. They ate all their porridge and would have asked for more if they could. But cats that choose to live in the barn have to be both agile and discreet. These kttens, being kittens without a wily mother to teach them how to be an Artful Dodger of giant combines and fork lifts and grain mountains, were at risk. If they were to enjoy the right to earn their living as rodent catchers and defenders of the realm, they had to find someplace other than the barn to live.

First I had to replace my husband in their minds as the food-bringer, then I had to convince them to associate my voice with food and, hence, security. Once these were accomplished, I had to move the food to the edge of their comfort zone. For days they teetered at the edge of the barn. I watched them from the garden; they watched me from the barn. Between us was a gap of about 20 yards actually or the impossible chasm of that last little leap of faith.

As always happens, the first step happened by accident. I discovered one of the kittens had come all the way to the cottage on his own. He scampered back when I appeared suddenly around the corner of the garage, but if he had come once, then I knew he could come again, whether he would or not is a different matter. As a parent, a teacher, and a person of some years now I know that no one--cat, cattle, human can ever be persuaded to do something that they don't want to do.

The day of the big move, I called the cats to the food bowl and then moved it slowly, slowly all the way to the cottage. Two of the kittens came. I thought perhaps the third would follow along later, but I have yet to see him in the cottage or with the other two. Perhaps he has that wiliness that has allowed cats to exist in barns and on farms without apparent human help for many many generations. I always leave enough food so that the cats can have a guest or two stopping through in the night. Sometimes I see a bit of movement in the corner of my eye that might be a cat or a starling or perhaps just the wind or my own active imagination.

The two kittens in the cottage are growing apace. They get fed at least twice a day with little milk breaks of specially purchased low-lactose cat's milk. I have endured incredible teasing and ther neceesity of countless explanations that even though farm cats have been fed cow's milk, it is easier on their stomachs to have this kind of milk. I have an uphill battle to persuade experts on animals and animal nutrition that I actually know about cats. As I see the two sleek little kittens with the milk dribbling down their chins, I wonder where the third kitten went.

What made the two kittens able to accept the gift of hospitality that the third one could not accept? We all know people--in fact, we have been at one time or another someone who could not accept the gift of hospitality. We grow up like the kittens, at first selfish by design: we need to focus on nothing more than our needs. Then we begin the hard job of learning to share, discerning how to trust and to put our needs second. Some of us, like the third kitten, perhaps learned those lessons too well.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Open Day on the Berriedale Braes

This church on the hill is open only one day a year. A friend researched its history and through her efforts made an opportunity to open the church to display the history and the beauty of the simple church which she has been researching.

The community of Berriedale wants to keep their church open; the Church of Scotland is making hard economic choices. When it comes to hard economic choices, the Highlands has a history of coming out on the short end.

Berriedale, usually associated with the full name "Berriedale Braes" for its cliff top location along the coast, is perhaps best known for its hair raising, white knuckle driving on a road considered one of the most dangerous in the United Kingdom Given the foibles of the low population density in the Highlands, however, not enough people actually die on the road to make it a priority for widening or otherwise addressing. In all fairness, much money was recently spent taming the road around the Braes, but, as a former flatlander, any road that still needs to be signposted: "Caution Oncoming traffic will be in the middle of the road" is not yet properly fixed.

Many of the people stopping by on this special open day were semi-locals who had passed the church on their way to Inverness or some place South but had never stopped. Given this, it was easy to understand how the church might have been forgotten not only in recent times but throughout its troubled history. On or near the site of the current church there has been a church since about 580. In fact, the Berriedale name may refer to Finbar, one of the reputed early Christians on the site.

The compact but appealing architecture is a testament to another local hero: Thomas Telford, a self taught engineer better known for bridges and railways took on the task of creating plans for 15 churches in some of the most remote places in the Highlands (Compared to some sites on the islands, Berriedale is a veritable crossroads). In the hopes of being noticed, Jenny Bruce was invoking not only the beauty and the history of the site in its own right but also as part of the larger history of the country.

I have already confessed in this blog to being an inveterate reader of those roadside historic markers, but I would encourage everyone to take advantage of the open days or their equivalent to find the little treasures of history lurking there.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Twins in the Cottage and the Joy of a Book

I have been pretty quiet in virtual life because I have been very busy with interesting but taxing adventures--a job application, a driving exam (only the first half of it), and creative projects--a writing assignment and putting two craft projects into an exhibit. In between I have been trying to persuade orphan kittens out of the barn they think of as sanctuary and helping shift cattle.

Cats and cattle, despite being predator and prey animals respectively, have a lot in common: most importantly, they only do what they want to do, they are very fond of food rewards, and they like to stay together. That may not seem like a lot, but when you have to persuade them to move or to stand still, knowing those three things is very useful. As a cattle wrangler, I would currently rank my skills on a par with most 10 or 12 year old children who have grown up on a farm except that I am a bit slower. I have to make the most of what little I know.

Moving a field full of cattle has proved easier than getting the kittens out of the barn. I can grant myself expert status with cats, but cats are so idiosyncratic that a lifetime of experience is still small change. They came to the sound of my voice for food, but then disappeared again behind the fertilizer bags, which dwarfed their puffball bodies. I moved the food further away; they came out and ate, looked quizzically around, and then back to the fertilizer bags. It was a major victory when I called them and saw a miniature tiger's head peeping up out of the tall grass right by the cottage, which I hoped would become their new haven.

The brave little tiger's twin, hidden somewhere in the tall grass, lurked along the edge of the grass and furtively into the door and around the back of the old sofa to the food bowl. I pretended not to see him until he came close enough to gaze up into my eyes. He looked as fierce as an 8 week old kitten can look. I assured him he was a tiger at heart, but in the meantime drink his milk. He did. Tonight when I went to feed the older cats their dinner, both the twins were in the cottage. If they are there in the morning, then I can feel a bit easier.

I have often wandered through crafts exhibits and thought "I could do that" and so in a moment of hubris when I was presented the opportunity to include some projects in an exhibit, I said yes. The challenge with crafts projects is that my same logic works in reverse: whatever I have created someone else could have done, too, so why should it be on display someplace?

As if it weren't hard enough to deal with that angst, I was stopped dead in my tracks with the simple-sounding task of "write a little about yourself." Even at 5am I did not like what I had written. We all know that those late night thoughts can look very bad in the light of day. This one was not good even in the dark. I slept fitfully, rose early, and put together a very short but not awkwardly self conscious piece about myself. I restitched a button on the last piece and lamented that my hand sewing has gotten as bad as my handwriting. But I was committed and I had a 9am driving lesson, so I bit the bullet and packaged up what I had and got out the door.

I proudly displayed my Pass certificate to my driving instructor and got down to the business of backing around corners of a road, a maneuver that I never expect to use except for the practical part of the driving test where a man or woman with a clipboard rides with me in my car and assesses how well I do things he/she asks. I have discovered that part of learning to be British is learning to accept those foibles--tests on maneuvers that make no sense. I think of that as the meta-test: coming to grips with how everyone else deals with the rules that don't make sense. It is easier moving cattle and cats. I understand how they think and why.

The gallery where I dropped my two projects and "a little bit about myself" is above the library in Wick. After having completed the last angstifying task for a day, I browsed the library. I found an interesting biography of Jefferson Davis, a historical description of a town in Michigan that successfully integrated years before anyplace else in the US managed it, and a description of how environmentalism is becoming part of some Christian churches. All those looked very interesting to read and did linger in my arms for awhile, but I must confess the sheer weight of them was too much for my battle-weary mind. Instead, I came to the check out with a new Tony Hillerman mystery, a collaboration of a mystery writer and a historian set in 19th century Chicago, and a DVD of a Miss Marple movie.

With the cattle tucked up for the next few days, the twin kittens in the cottage, the exhibits in the gallery, the job application in, and no immediate demands on driving or other lessons, I indulged myself in one of my favorite pastimes: curling up with a book and not stopping until it has been read from cover to cover. Since I was a very little girl reading comic books, the pleasure of disappearing into a good read has been one of the best treats ever. I picked up the Tony Hillerman with all the pleasure of a young girl with her comic books and added to that was the comfort a familiar hero, like catching up with an old friend. I read halfway through the book and then dozed on the sofa and dreamed about what I had been reading. I woke, got some tea, and went back to reading. I ate a little dinner, which my husband kindly prepared, briefly watched the news, and then went back to reading. I did not stop even to feed the cats until I had finished the story.

The next book will have to wait because tomorrow is overloaded with the responsibilities of the workaday world, but I will go out knowing that it is there waiting for me.