Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Into The West

For the second time in about a week I find myself heading down the farm road with no destination in mind. Last week the day had started hectic and left my mind blustery with ideas bouncing off each other. I had pulled on boots thinking I was needed to help move cattle--reprising my role as the biped that stands in as a temporary gate. Instead I just needed to move my car out of the way of the impending move. On the way to a safe parking place, it struck me that I wanted to keep going. "Where?" my husband asked. "West," I said. "How far?" I shrugged.

West leads quickly into even less populated country and wide horizons that I find soothing when I have too many ideas colliding. When I was 17 I took the family car, a 1963 Corvair, which Ralph Nader later famously declared a death trap, and headed North. I lived then in a suburb of Indianapolis where North meant open country of corn and soybean fields and roads whose official names are their direction from the nearest township or county line, "200 West" or "100 North". If I went far enough, there were gravel pits and the two tall stacks of the oil refinery burning the gas byproduct like an offering to the Gods of Fossil Fuels. Now those stacks are extinguished, the city has swallowed that open space, and I am thousands of miles and many decades away in a Volvo headed west, still looking for those broad horizons.

Last week the day was calm, but the sky was overcast. Beneath a veil at this time of year the light favors the blues and greens with such depth of color that the heather looks as if goes all the way to the center of the earth. Today the sun is flat--low in the sky--but earnest in its intensity. This low, bright light favors the ambers and reds with a golden vitality. The red-brown of the brackens is a rich port color spread out along the hills, the reds of the rose hips lingering on the bushes on the verge invite sonnets, and the beech leaves in the hedges complete the red-brown pallet with merlot tints against the darker stems.

We drive past the back road into town. If he wonders where we are going, my husband does not say so. We pass the split stane that divides Caithness from Sutherland where the swath of gorse along the sides of the road rewards me with a few yellow blossoms among the green. I smile. Some gorse is always blooming. Not the outrageous burst of summer yellow, but blooming nonetheless.

We continue past blue lochans in heathered hillscapes. I could climb to the top of those hills and the rolling gold-green-brown hills of heather and rock and bracken and gorse would extend as far as I could see. I could sit like the fool on the hill and watch the world go about its business.
The thought of those vistas is enough to make me smile with the richness of it; I do not need to stop.

We carry on past the improved road and enter the land of polka dot hills--more formally, striated rocks. Glaciers passed through here at least once and these rocks bear the marks of the ice and the pressure. I note with pleasure that the little cafe by the side of the road opposite the sheer cliff face is open. On the way back we can stop for coffee and ice cream, but I continue now with the same vague sense of destination as when I was a young girl on my bicycle pursuing a road to its end, often making arbitrary decisions about what was the end.

In this case, the end of the road came at a sharp turn by a river after the road had narrowed down to a single track road which the sheep felt was more their domain than mine. I had been here before and thought then that someday I would walk up the path that said simply "Strathnaver Trail."

I parked the car in a convenient space off the road facing the golden light dancing on the burnished water of the stream below, grabbed my camera and a sun hat, and walked up the trail. Walking the trail for pleasure on a warm afternoon is a joy, but I can't help but be mindful of the many folks who walked that trail for long days and hard nights when they were cleared off their villages. I have a walk only as long as I choose and a safe destination waiting for me. They had neither.

The sheep by the side of the path either find their perches too pleasant to abandon or perhaps they recognize me as a transient. In any case, we seem for an instant to have the kind of gentle orderliness of a newly laundered sheet falling into place on a bed. Everything seems content and at home with itself and its surroundings. Perhaps the photos will capture that and I can share the images with you, but the broad horizons had worked their magic on me. I sauntered back to the car and began our way slowly back home.

Instead of the little cafe, we stopped at the Betty Hill Hotel overlooking one of the world's most beautiful beaches. Over coffee and chocolate cake, we talked about this and that, fiddled with a word puzzle in the paper, and, watching the waves break on the beach below, knitted our lives back into harmony.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Patter of Little Feet

In this case, the patter of little feet is actually hooves and paws. To be precise--1508. That's 2 dogs among the 375 sheep that came trotting up the farm road from the outlying field into the fanks--a series of corrals with a foot bath to disinfect their feet, which to my non-farm mind is reminiscent of the foot bath in swimming pools, but I usually keep the analogy of Athlete's foot and locker rooms to myself.

When cattle move up the road, you not only hear them but also feel them. The ground echoes their massive footsteps. In contrast, the sheep slipped in unheard. I had seen the dogs in the morning--working dogs-- and chatted with the shepherd, so I knew after lunch the sheep would be coming but they came quietly enough to go unnoticed as I pottered in the house.

When I looked out the kitchen window late in the afternoon, the sheep were clustered inside the gate enjoying each other's company. When we came back from a ride into town just before sunset, the sheep were gone. I thought nothing more of it until my husband said from the tennis lawn, "Look over the garden wall." The field had sprouted sheep. The sheep had spread out and were knee high in rich green grass--thanks to a recent bout of good weather. The field had previuolsy been occupied by one lone bull. "Now the bull won't be lonely," I say out loud, though I am not sure whether the bull considers 375 sheep good company or not.

The cats joined me in the garden and each, in turn, did the feline equivalent of a double take as they jumped to the top of the wall and saw the newly sprouted sheep in the field. I think I detected a vague disgruntlement at the intrusion on their field. I often see them going over the wall and through that field to avoid the heavily trafficked farm road on their way to some favorite mousing territory.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Mrs. Mcdonald's Apple Tree

I have been working since I got here to uncover the bones, the structure, of the various gardens around the house. Every garden has a skeleton--something that gives it a structure around which all the other elements revolve.
The skeleton provides both physical as well as spiritual-psychological-aesthetic support. The physical aspect of an abandoned garden is quickly apparent: walls are no longer straight, upright flowers such as delphinium instead sprawl untidily on the ground, weeds tumble over and obscure the edges of beds, the hardy flowers have overrun the more timid, and the showy hybrids have reverted to their native color or size. The harmony has been lost.
Although it may be daunting to pull weeds and trim hedges and repair fences and mend walls, nonetheless, the work is straightforward and the effects are quickly apparent. Grass, which had been so long neglected that it had reached its full height and fallen over on itself so that walking over it was more like walking through deep snow than the lawn it had been, has now been tamed to a semblance of lawn with cropped grass and low lying daisies. The Bishop's weed and the nettles that crowded nearly everything else out of the beds have been subdued in an uneasy truce. I anticipate a rebellion in the spring, but for now they are at bay.

The fruit trees have been trimmed, the currant bushes, although again in need of pruning, are more civilized than when I first made their acquaintance. The hard work has revealed the physical structure--fruit trees and bushes along two sides of the walled garden; flower beds and a shade tree behind the clothes line, and trees and a shade garden on the fourth wall. At one time there was a framed surround of chicken wire protecting the younger quartet of the fruit trees. One apple tree, which I have dubbed Mrs. McDonald's apple tree, has been in the house as long as the now deserted cistern beside it.

The graveled path that surrounded the grass in the centre has not yet been reclaimed, but it is at least apparent. Lupins have colonized it and are faring better in the gravel than in their original beds. I am collecting their seeds and replanting the little ones. In time, even the lupins will be tamed, and the gravel path will become a walkway again. For now, I welcome the lupin's colorful, fragrant flower spikes wherever they appear.

The physical aspect of an abandoned garden is both more apparent and more easily remedied than the loss of narrative in a garden. Now that I have unearthed this skeleton, I need to learn the stories that it wants to tell me before I can become a part of the intimate conversation of a garden. The first clue is in the name. This garden is known as the tennis lawn because the grass once provided a tennis court. The posts remain; the net is in the attic. I have seen photos of a young family on the tennis lawn in its earlier days. Knowing those parts of the story of this garden makes it easier to join in conversation with it.

Having met Mrs. Mcdonald's apple tree and made first acquaintance with the tennis lawn, the perfunctory interrogation: "What were you?" What was beneath these nettles?" can become more familiar. I know the damp spots in the bed where the nettles once reigned. I know the sun moves slowly over the peak of the wall where the vines house a secret city of tiny birds whose warrens can nonetheless be navigated from one garden to the next for sturdy, acrobatic cats.

Now, instead of a young family at play on the lawn, a photo would catch an older woman and four reclaimed cats. The trees in the far end and I are both senescing. Mrs. McDonald's apple tree looks over us all, but has not told me any stories of the time before a tennis lawn. Trees can keep secrets.

I have inserted myself into the periphery of this garden: wherever a weed came out; something went in. The smallest bed is now a symphony of pinks and purples tucked around the red currant that defined that part of the garden: a tiny fragrant corner respite from a hard working, hands on world. Sitting on the reclaimed curbing and breathing in the fragrance and soft colours of that now familiar part of the garden, I reclaim parts of myself that all too often seem in danger of disappearing.

"You'll miss your garden more than your house," my friends had said as I prepared to leave behind everything. I just nodded and tried not to think about it, but each plant in the garden told a story of my life there. I had collected plants in exchange for working with the county cooperative extension service so that I had native plants and knew how to look after them. I had used a pick axe to open up the clay soil for trees, including the serviceberry that I planted for wildlife and wondered why it never got taller until the day I woke early and saw the deer in the back yard nibbling gingerly at the tender shoots of new growth. Dozens of last year's varieties of day lilies, available at a reduced price from the nearby doctor who grew them as a hobby turned into a business, were planted on the slope where my yard edged into the remnant wetlands for which I attended countless neighborhood association meetings to keep it a wetlands rather than a dirt bike track.

I still dream of clear summer evenings walking out on my deck and watching the red-winged blackbird in the locust tree singing and scolding and surveying his domain as the sun set or of the crab apple in bloom outside my dining room window. Not long before I left, my daughter sent me an azalea as a graduation present. I hope it still blooms by the front door where I planted it. I carefully tended the two small azaleas that I thought might have been Mother's Day presents to the previous owner. Although they had not been planted as part of my story in the garden, they were nonetheless part of the story now.

As part of a training program with the county cooperative extension I joined other volunteers in creating and maintaining a vest pocket park and an heirloom garden in the little town that used to be home. There is a plaque in the Westfield Town Hall with my name on it, but I prefer to think that the better story is in the plants outside. And so it will be in this new-to-me garden where the plants, the cats, and I will share our conversations and in time we'll leave behind only bones for some other gardener to work into their chapter of the story.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

The Last Red Admiral

"All in a golden afternoon full leisurely we glide" Lewis Carrol used those lines as a preface or foreword to Alice in Wonderland. They popped into my head long after I had read the book and even longer after I thought I had remembered any of it. I don't know why those words captured my imagination, but they seem to capture the languor of a sun still full with summer intensity but hanging low in the sky hinting at its coming absence.

We recently had just such a golden afternoon. After planting bulbs and clearing out weeds and debris from the ruined kitchen garden, I surrendered to the languor of the afternoon. My cats had kept me company as they went about the busy work of cats--chasing, tussling, tree climbing, pouncing, and exploring. Sheba, the adult female, has decided to accept the two young ones and even takes time now to show them the necessary skills of climbing and pouncing. Bow, conspicuously smaller even than his brother, struggles to keep up. When Sheba climbed on to the roof of a garden shed, Button scampered up after her and the two of them played King of the Hill, looking down on their domain. Bow tried climbing to the roof up a sheer slate rock wall rather than the convenient climbing tree his brother and Sheba had used. After three valiant efforts, he retired to a spot in the sun.

In time all four cats settled in for a nap in the sun. They seemed not to mind that most of the tall grass previously used for their napping had been reduced to the semblance of a lawn. The winds which define the weather here must themselves have been asleep in the sun because there was no breeze. In the stillness I heard the ocean breathing gently and the wing beat of a low flying pigeon overhead.

In this peaceful, still world a butterfly introduced himself to a weed that had been marked for destruction. My indolence left the yellow flowers for this late-blooming butterfly and their choreography. The Red Admiral flew with the precision to send his proboscis down the narrow flower. He went about his business unaffected by my presence as I pored over his eyes--nearly lost in the blue-back of his head, the careful stripes on his antennae, and the lustruous blue black of his body where it merged into the russet red of the wings. I grew impatient to have him settle and open his wings for me to admire their bright pattern when I noticed that the underside of his wings was a fabulous pattern like the marbling on the end papers of an antique book with subtle, soft shades swirling and celebrating their rich complexity.

In his own time, the Last Red Admiral of the season finished courting the dainty yellow flowers and moved on. The cats edged into the shade or back onto their own business. The ocean woke from its nap and the more familiar sound of the surge returned. The wind grew lively enough to tug at my hair and with that activity the golden afternoon was dissolved.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Lost and Found in Achvarasdal

Treasures are often things left behind that survive on their own. Achvarasdal, a little remnant woods, is like that. The former estate that planted the trees has become an old people's home. Both the people and the trees can be overlooked until or unless someone introduces you to them. I wandered into the woods one day because it was close enough to my new home that I could find it on my own.

If we had streets and blocks and corners, I would say that it is just down the street and around the first corner. In the States I fell into a conversation akin to the Abbot and Costello who's on first routine when I replied to Morris's question: "How far is it?" with "About 6 blocks." He tried again, "How far is it?" "About 6 blocks." And then after a long silence, "What's a 'block'?" Achvarasdal is close by city or country standards. I can walk from my house to there, but my First Solo Car Ride was to the woods. I was aching to see trees and listen to their quiet, secret conversations. I walked into the woods holding a brochure from the library with a map and a description of the woods.

No more than a few feet into the woods I ran into a couple coming out. The man was overjoyed to see me with a brochure of the woods. We talked. I was invited to join the woodlands management group. I had been introduced to the treasure of this little woods and cheerfully became a part of it. My First Solo Car Ride and my First Friends on my own are woven into this treescape.

Since I first wrote this piece, which has been languishing in my draft folder, I have taken several guided walks into Achvarasdal to learn about birds and bats and trees and lichens. It has provided opportunities to attend conferences of other community woodland managers. I recently rediscovered these photos and decided to share them here.

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Chasing Phantom Cattle

When the phone call came, I had time to save the file I was working on but not to close the computer. The voice on the phone was urgent--cattle had been reported moving onto the road near Balmore. I knew where that was and could even discern that the caller had an Orcadian accent. A far cry from the first days when words on the phone collided with each other and turned to mush before they entered my brain.

My self-satisfaction was short lived when my husband asked which side of Balmore? And which side of the road? Next time--and there will certainly be a next time--I'll know better. Slowly the bits and pieces of experience collect in my mind and make patterns on which my intuition can grow. As I jump into the car, I also note that my husband has no sense of urgency. As we drive down the farm road and out on to main road, I, too, remember how many times we have responded to a phone call and how few times the animals have been real.

Perhaps someone driving home from the office saw a gate open and thought: "Oh, the cattle might get out..." and this message as it gets passed along increases in urgency. The cattle that might get out are in fact out. Or perhaps urbanized wayfarers have a deep seated fear of animals that leads them to believe that the docile herbivores are, in fact, ready at any moment to pursue them. The first scenario seems more likely; the latter, more interesting.

While I look for errant cattle and think about the psychology of communications, my husband, as usual, is more pragmatic. One of the things to look for when looking for runaway cattle is, well, cattle shit. Breakaway cattle take their hygiene with them. If they passed this way, they will have provided some evidence of their passing, so to speak.

We roll up the road past Balmore and turn around and come back again. We see no evidence of the cattle or an open gate. Once again, it has been a false alarm. I am relieved but can't help thinking that chasing phantom cattle is just one example of how we get tangled up in good intentions--our own or someone else's.