Quills

This essay is from Two Farms: Essays on a Maine Country Life by Janet Galle.
2006. it is available at Gulf of Maine Books, Brunswick or from Apple Creek Farm.

          With the extraordinary amount of snow this winter, the wild animals in the woods around Apple Creek Farm are clearly impacted in their daily lives and routines. This week, we have been visited by an unseen and, as yet, unrecognized animal, but we know he is about. Tracks and scat reveal his nightly prowls, but we can’t identify him.
           In addition, the 13 acre field, an immaculate expanse of white, presents even more of a puzzle. While cross-country skiing two days ago, we came upon a series of “scuffles” in the snow. These upheavals had no tracks, not deer, not coyote, not our dogs, leading to them. They just appeared in the middle of  an empty field. Closer examination shows bird wings around the edges of the stirred snow. An owl? The local ravens? Did they catch the mouse? No blood, no feathers, but definitely some action took place.
           All of these signs reminded me of a long ago time at our first farm, when our now adult children were small.

IMG_4836February, 1982 Quills

          Life in the country produces inevitable confrontations with wild critters. By hook or by crook, these clever creatures of the forest world find ways to benefit from our presence. Fat raccoons grow fatter eating our corn and chickens all summer. One young skunk spent an entire spring sleeping next to the grain bin in the barn, undisturbed by our daytime habits. A milk snake, who preferred to keep cool wrapped around our dog’s water dish, would not stay out of the house in spite of daily evictions.

          Midwinter this year brought a porcupine. The porcupine, Erethizon dorsatum, does not hibernate, yet is not overly fond of snow. Once a cozy spot which provides warmth and food is located, he rarely ventures far afield. Our young Erethizon, as we were soon calling him, followed that pattern exactly. He established a den under our neighbor’s cottage with a short, direct path to our towering, tasty Scotch pine. We did not have many trees along our shore and this one was a beauty.

          One evening in late January, we spotted him munching away on the pine’s bark, and within a week the tree trunk was stripped bare. We tried to capture him with a salt-filled trap. No luck. Shooting was not a desired alternative. But as the snow deepened, and the tree’s condition worsened, we knew something had to be done.

20150222_154723          One day, at dusk we five — my husband Pete, the children, and I — set forth, armed for the confrontation. Our weapons? A broken hockey stick left over from previous raccoon engagements, a wooden club, a seven-foot length of giant tinker toys, a garbage can, and a smelt net. We positioned ourselves in a wide circle to block all possible escape routes as we advanced on the Scotch pine. If Erethizon hadn’t seen us coming, he certainly heard the nervous giggles, followed by shouts of “Quick! He’s crawling down,” and “Get him Mom,” and “Where’s the net?!”

           Porcupines do not climb very gracefully, up or down. Their powerful claws do the work going up. Mostly they tumble coming down. It wasn’t too difficult to scoop our porcupine into the smelt net. The harder part was keeping him there. Immediately he began hoisting himself over the net’s rim. Four of us danced around, keeping our distance, yelling worthless instructions to my husband, the net holder. Pete put an end to our foolishness with a sharp command to get the trap. Quick!

          We scurried back to the house and returned with our box-like trap, which at various times has contained raccoons, a skunk, several curious cats, and once thirteen chickens. It was the ideal spot for Erethizon. First, we dropped him into the garbage can, and then, with a tip and a push from the smelt net, our porcupine scuttled into the trap. The metal doors were locked, followed by five sighs of relief.

      20150222_152830    There remained one last adventure to complete our porcupine’s day — a truck ride (I imagined it was his first) to a distant deserted forest where he could nibble away to his heart’s content on some absentee landowner’s trees.
Meanwhile, I am becoming aware of a gnawing suspicion that close by a groundhog slumbers. His sleep grows restless as he grows thinner with each passing day. Undoubtedly, he is dreaming of my fresh lettuce and pea sprouts. I think I had better remove the quills from the smelt net. I may need it come spring, and not for fish.

Christmas Eve with a Shepherd

This essay is from Two Farms: Essays on a Maine Country Life by Janet Galle
Published in 2006. it is available at Gulf of Maine Books, Brunswick or from Apple Creek Farm.
Originally titled, “December, 1992”
          I went out to the barn this afternoon when it wasn’t time to do the chores. If the clouds hadn’t been piled, one gray pillow on top of the other, I could have seen the sun hanging just above the tree line. I slipped over the fence on the east side of the paddock to avoid the geese and their incessant honking. I wanted peace. In the barn, Sam the ram peered through his fence, but he keeps quiet these days. I silently crossed the frozen earth, pockmarked with hundreds of cloven hoof indentations. What was once November mud is now December hardpan.
          On the west side of the barn is the newly-opened section of the paddock. Here a giant hemlock tree, hanging heavy with tiny cones like Christmas ornaments, stands like a protective umbrella in the center of the area. A small creek, essentially empty with but a trickle of water clinging to the bottom like shards of glass, meanders at an angle toward the obscured setting sun. The sheep seem to like this patch of land away from a direct view into the barn.
          Ours is an open south-facing structure which allows plenty of sunlight to enter the barn in winter. If you are a sheep who has to be enclosed, you like this. But if you are an outside sheep looking in, it can be a noisy, bothersome place full of crowing roosters, cackling hens, and honking geese.
          This afternoon there are twenty-three ewes outside, sixteen of whom should be pregnant. Number 19 looks ready to deliver any minute. She is built like a tank, slung low to the ground and, when she spies me, gets to her feet looking a bit like my father does when disturbed from a quiet afternoon in front of the football game. Once Number 19 is up, the others, who are scattered on the ground like moguls on a ski slope, get to their feet, too, their ears cocked forward with an air of surprise. No one comes to the barn at this hour of the day.

          I just read a farm book in which the author explores the idea that sheep are not really dumb creatures at all; rather, their annoying habits, like running en masse right through fences, are logical responses to situations. Sheep have no defenses. They have no way to fight except by flight. I could see that look about them now. Until they were sure who had arrived in their paddock, they needed to be prepared to escape.
          For a moment I have become a tomten making my rounds of the farm animals on Christmas night. I whisper to them, “Sheep, fat ewes, stay warm in your wool coats — eat your alfalfa hay.” I repeat the mantra. Who am I to know whether these words work for soothing sheep on a December evening or not?
          I crouch against the fence post and call Tilly’s name. A small, thickly-fleeced ewe separates herself from the group. She trots over to me. Down low is the best level for greeting Tilly; she likes to nuzzle in close and then get her nose and chin scratched. My husband calls her annoying, but I can easily call her lovable. Tilly stays with me, and I am glad, for I have decided to stay with the sheep for a long time. It is hectic in the house. We are cleaning for the holidays and everyone is helping. I have no complaints, but still…
          An old friend whom we had not seen for twenty years came for coffee this morning. With him arrived a flood of memories. Wasn’t it only yesterday that we were young? I ask Tilly about time flying and holiday meanings and such; her response is to push closer, snuffling for a handful of grain and another hug — the simple needs.
          The barn is the place to go during the holiday season. And the sheep are the animals from whom I seek comfort. They don’t wag their tails like our dog in blind affection nor are they as cozy and intimate as the cats. Sheep are accepting, tolerant, non-demanding. I expect to sit here for half an hour, talking out loud to them. They will listen without comment.
          Teeny Spot, who looks like she ran into a wall and was squashed from both ends, comes nearer to see what is up with Tilly. Tilly is, of course, the tamest, and the others stand watching her behavior with a human, but I suspect Teeny Spot wants to know a little more about me. Maybe before winter is over I will know more about her. She is the great grandchild of my first ewe, Cassie, and by that bloodline alone captures a corner of my heart.
            Leaning against the fence, not moving for a long time, I can feel the temperature dropping. The air is ice-cracking cold. Snow swirls furiously in fragments of ice chips. I feel like I am part of a scene from one of those magical Christmas globes which some giant’s child has just picked up and given a shake. Here I am, caught in the “barn and shepherd scene,” just right for Christmas. It grows darker. A few older ewes are no longer curious about my voice or my ideas and they turn away, walking in their slightly stiff-legged manner, looking for all the world like matrons on the streets of Pittsburgh or Chicago, finishing the holiday shopping in their thick fur coats. These matrons, however, are content to wander back to the welcoming shelter of the hemlock boughs and have no interest in Marshall Field’s windows.
          I stretch my legs. All the sheep except Tilly move away now. Tilly is still intent on grain. She knows I have a handful of cracked corn waiting somewhere. We walk together back to the barn and I produce her treat. She snuffles, inhaling the kernels from the palm of my blue mitten. I scratch her head one more time before I return to the lighted house. Electric candles have been turned on in the windows, inviting the traveler, the friend, the adult-child coming home, or the shepherd to come inside and stay a while.
          An hour in the company of sheep was all I needed. They reminded me what should be done during December.