Titans of the Forest

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.

          Winter quiet often inspires reflection and this winter is no different. These thoughts arrive during our daily work– feeding the animals, preparing meals or as we plan for the upcoming season.


Titans of the Forest
January, 1996

        Trees are like the dinosaurs of the plant world but not in the sense of being extinct. It is the size that counts. They easily top Tyrannosaurus Rex — in sound, as well as height. I never look up enough when I am outside to truly appreciate the dinosaur-like plants that tower over me. Rather, my view is usually straight on, about six feet above ground level. In spring, in autumn, after a snowstorm, I see this picture: lacy, delicate trees, etched and painted by Mother Nature. I forget there is another — the view of giants.

img_3374         In the middle of a snow-sleet storm this past week, Nell, our new pup, and I went for a walk with the wind swirling around us, tugging at her fur and my scarf, bringing tears to our eyes. There were no other distractions in this storm, only the elements and us. Near the ice pond we stopped for a while, stood still. Nell leaned against my leg as we were engulfed by the rage of the wind. Twigs and small branches flew through the air in a fury. Detritus from last autumn’s leaf fall was scooped up and hurled back to earth. Wind howled, and the trees above us answered in kind. They were not taking this beating like lambs.

        Ice-covered branches and the slender tip tops of trees clinked together, jostling each other like fans at a football game. They pushed and shoved under the wind’s influence, always returning to their original position and then moving quickly in the opposite direction, all the while chattering and clanging. Ice in a glass. Tap dancers on stage. Horses on parade with their clattering shoes hitting asphalt. All of those sounds rained down upon Nell and me as we stood under the bare ash tree towering 50 feet above us. I crouched beside her, held onto her for comfort. The forest was filled with passions in a storm, and nowhere was it more violent than under the trees.

         The more the wind pushed, the more the trunks swayed, groaning as if sick or injured, left to die along a path. Unlike their distant branches that reach the sky and greet the sun on brighter days, the trunks sustain the weight of the entire tree, limb to branch to stem to leaf. Theirs is the task of transporting food, minerals, and water. Here the sap swells, rises, freezes, and then slowly melts. Here the transportation system — switching terminals, platforms, and connections — carries out its work. It is a life of burden and responsibility — and endurance.

        On the first farm by the ocean where we once lived, when my children were young and I was frequently awake in the dark, bewitching hours of night with a baby on my shoulder, I would watch the white pine and northern red oak along the shore. Throughout winter those trees moved like tyrannosaurs stalking along the ocean’s edge. Their entire bodies seemed in action except for their feet which were rooted and solid, the support that kept them from tumbling. Groaning, not from illness, but from exertion in the battle, the trees struggled to remain upright.

        I am fascinated when trees have lost that battle, when I come upon the newly-split wood, splintered into daggers, of a fallen pine deep in a forest. The intricate web of roots and rootlets that have provided water and minerals, sustained a tree for a lifetime, are exposed. Death of a titan is dramatic. Sixty feet of fallen tree is not to be scoffed at.
At the university in Ohio where I went to school, an old red oak that once defined the center of the campus, now over 200 years old, was taken down this year. It did not lose a battle to a wind storm as the trees in my woods may, but fear of the consequences of such a defeat drove the campus officials to “remove” the tree first. Their comment, “It was only a matter of time before a storm blew it over…”

        But just imagine. Sprouted about 1795, that red oak grew up in a forest which stretched from Lake Erie to the Ohio River. It watched over the birth of the university and the comings and goings of countless students who strolled beneath its branches. People do not take kindly to the loss of such a tree.

img_3378         I wonder, then, about the lesser-known trees that tower over Nell and me, the ones complaining loudly about the strength of this particular storm. They will survive. They are still young in tree years and have flexible trunks and tenacious roots. Long after we have gone on our way, these ash and maple, hemlock and fir, pine and beech which inhabit our woods will have withstood the sting of sleet, the weight of snow, the pelting of rain. The titans of this forest may wail in response to the wind, but they will win the battle. From the viewpoint of giants there is no room for whimperers. Nell and I will do best to weather this storm under the protection of a roof.


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.

Turkey Time

IMG_20140627_194543      Twenty-eight years ago one of the turkeys on our, then, very small farm got a reprieve. That isn’t going to happen this month for the 47 who, from their tiny poult days in the warm brooder, developed into full-grown somewhat elegant (for a turkey) birds. They have even weathered that unseasonably early snowstorm, a bit like their wild cousins. But, now it is time for eating them. The farm isn’t Pete’s and mine anymore either. It is now a thriving, serious organic business that belongs to Jake and Abby. But, I still get to do the chores once in a while.

Turkey InstagramI can’t help, however, thinking back to an essay I wrote 28 years ago, one about AT, our turkey who survived Thanksgiving by ingratiating himself into my heart. Things have changed—most noteably the cost of buying a poult (now $7.08) and feeding a growing turkey ($28.00 per turkey). The 47 turkeys Jake and Abby are now raising have had, like AT, a fine life. They live in a large, rotating pasture area, so grass is always green and fresh. There are piles of logs and old stumps within all the enclosures they have inhabited (the panhandle field, as Jake calls it, is over five acres so there are plenty of new patches for the weekly moving of polywire fencing), and the turkeys delight in climbing, flapping their wings, sweeping back down to the ground. They have a covered roosting hutch, fresh water, and people who love hearing their constant murmuring sounds all day long. They are content turkeys. Also, smart.

I have been wondering why turkeys have the reputation which I wrote about. These fellows are bronze turkeys, not white. A difference? Closer relatives of wild turkeys, which apparently Ben Franklin loved and wanted for our national bird instead of the eagle?

Yet, some of this initial batch of turkey poults died, too. Perhaps it is their frailty at an early age that earns them the reputation of “not too smart.” Whatever that may be, feeding the current batch of turkeys is my favorite job on the farm. They talk to me the whole way to the feed trays, trotting along behind, jostling each other a bit, but respectful, too, something that clearly would not be said about the chickens.

I have a photo of my grandmother, over 100 years ago, standing, in a white dress no less, with a grain bucket in her hand feeding her turkeys. If she could only see me now.


November, 1986 Hatchet day
Hatching day was May 21. Hatchet day should be November 26. It is just that we can’t all agree if we really want to eat A.T. Not that we are squeamish. It is more that A.T., short for Attack Turkey, has wormed her way into the family, gotten herself a turkey-toehold in our affections, so to speak.

Last May, after we paid out a hard-earned $11.25 to the feed store, A.T. came to live with us along with three of her siblings, each of whom immediately demonstrated and confirmed all written instructions for raising turkeys. According to my homesteader’s handbook, “Turkey raising appeals to the least number of people… turkeys are the most difficult domestic fowl to raise… turkeys lay their eggs standing up… they are easily frightened… susceptible to disease… and are amazingly stupid,” or words to that effect. Cute though, at least at the beginning.

A.T. and the other three tiny, soft yellow fluff balls huddled in a grocery box refusing to eat or drink (my book warned me about this) because, as we discovered later that day, they couldn’t find the mash or water which was directly in front of their beaks. Arek spent the evening holding each poult in turn upside down and dipping each beak first into the grain, then the water, then the grain…

When we stood each of the four turkeys in a corner of the box, isolated from the others, each held her position, facing the blank cardboard wall with an equally blank stare. They would have died there if we hadn’t herded them together again. The next night one did die — just lay down and called it quits. After a week, the three remaining turkeys, who were faring a little bit better with the world, were moved from their kitchen home to the large upstairs bathroom where we organized a daily TET.

TET, Turkey Exercise Time, allotted 15 minutes of free-flying and romping on the bathroom’s vinyl floor. The poults were still much too tiny to be outside. Besides, turkeys catch every known disease from chickens so they couldn’t go anywhere near our barn. TET was a great hit until we noticed that two of the three turkeys each had a leg which would not stop twitching. Like miniature ballerinas, the little poults hopped on one leg while the other moved out from the body and back again, a turkey battement jete´.

When the turkeys grew larger and we moved them to a pen outside my kitchen window, the condition worsened. Their weight ended their dancing careers, and the hatchet, sadly, ended their lives. Our investment of effort and money was beginning to look like a mistake.

A.T., now worth the original price plus two bags of feed, didn’t seem to care, or even notice that she was alone. Why should she, when life under the old apple tree was good and relaxing? Best of all she considered herself a house pet with all the rights and privileges. Each day throughout the summer I would let A.T. out for a romp, a little like the old in-house TET, but now she was really free. I would find her walking into the kitchen when the door had been inadvertently left open, and, much to the frustration of the drivers in this family, she also left daily deposits on the hood of the truck or car.

She took great delight in following me. My summer gardening days are filled with memories of a great white turkey standing next to me as I weeded or tootling along behind me for a walk in the woods. She had grown into a big animal with heavy, sleek, snow-white feathers and a head that didn’t look too bad for a turkey. In addition, I thought her brain had enlarged slightly, getting a bit smarter, until the day she went to the garden alone and “got lost” on the other side of the house. Her cries — a half gobble which was snorted through her nostrils — brought us all running to her rescue. As soon as she saw us, she ran happily with outstretched wings to the arms of her keepers.

A.T. continued to cost us money as well. Feed disappeared at $6.08 per 50 pound bag, the most expensive medicated kind because otherwise turkeys develop blackhead, a horrid sounding disease. There were unseen costs, too. The day the tile-layer was working in our mud room (at $15 per hour labor cost), he disappeared. I found him supposedly cutting tiles but actually playing water-spray tag with A. T. in the front yard. More money down the old turkey tube.

When September arrived and apples fell, A.T. found a new diversion. Casey, our golden retriever, who comes close to A.T. on the intelligence scale, eats apples. So does A.T. She especially likes the apples that Casey is eating. That is nothing really new. All summer A.T. ate dog food, the big hunky-chunky kind. Casey, intimidated by strong wings and a fast beak, went hungry while A.T. strutted around with a bulging crop.

Once again Casey was never given a moment of peace. Fifty apples might lie on the ground and one would be in Casey’s mouth — the one that A.T. wanted. She would sidle up to the poor dog, make a lightning fast jab at the apple, and Casey would be yelping and running for the house.

Things haven’t changed one bit now that November is here, except that A.T. is plumper and better looking than ever. She still chases Casey. She calls to me every morning and actually seems to want me to pat her when she leans against my leg. Maybe she is smarter than I give her credit for. How unattached am I to this turkey now worth $6.50 per pound? Enough to eat her? Maybe I had better get busy and winterize her pen.