Always We Begin Again–Happy 2014

I jumped from my chair when something hit the window beside my desk. A cardinal…on the pavement of the patio. And as quickly as my feet brushed the floor, a Cooper’s hawk snagged the wounded redbird and took to the sky. I breathed jagged ins and outs. My heart sped.

“This is nature,” I told myself. But it’s the piece of nature that I do not love. It’s been several days now, and I still semi-shudder at the thought of that few seconds.

I have watched the hawks swoop upon the back yard for months. What I expected was that one of the doves who gleans the leavings from the feeders would be swept away, one of these birds that my bird-hunting Uncle Hugh Lee would never fire upon. “The dove is the Bird of Peace,” he said. “You don’t kill a Bird of Peace.”

The first year on the ravine, we installed birdfeeders to mimic the layout of the yard at our former home. When our expected yellow finches did not arrive, we changed the seed and the feeders, and greedy blackbirds descended in flocks. We learned that blackbirds do not like safflower seeds, but everybody else does, so we changed the menu again and welcomed cardinals, woodpeckers, chickadees, purple finches, and all the common varieties of wrens and sparrows. Doves gathered under the feeders to clean up. For three years, we had Lonesome. Who knows what happened to his partner, maybe a hawk. And now, who knows what happened to Lonesome. The doves now congregate in even numbers.

So much of our life here has been tied to the animals. The first two years, there was the skulk of foxes in the ravine. Lots of foxes, including two litters of pups, three in one and five in the other. One of the yearlings nested under the ramp to the porch on the side of the house, always taking leave before the humans might interfere. We watched them dig for moles and bury food for future meals.They caught pieces of hotdogs in mid-air that the neighbor tossed to them in the summer dusk. We noticed that, while they were off the ground, they were snapping up fireflies. When we returned to The Compound following some evening outing, the headlights caught the eyes of little heads peeking up over the ravine banks. It seemed that they’d been waiting up for us.

The raccoons showed themselves almost immediately. There were three kits that trailed after a waddly-wooly mama when she came to the yard to scout for food leavings, and then a hulking old fellow, biggest raccoon I’d ever seen, completely silver, that we did not see again after that first year. One evening, Dave and I watched a raccoon scale one of the tall trees, probably fifty feet, to rest in a crook between two of the top branches. We figured he was a young one.

The feral calico cat came the first year. We are such creative and original thinkers that we named her Kitty. We watched her stand off a fox one afternoon between our yard and the neighbor’s. She crouched to the ground and backed the vixen up with a threatening feline crawl, until the foxy lady acknowledged Kitty’s superiority by turning white-tipped tail to run. Kitty and I became so close that sometimes she would allow me within fifteen feet of her, then she was gone. No, I mean really gone–for two years. One spring morning, I heard her calling for breakfast from beneath my bathroom window, sitting kitty-pretty as if we’d had tea the afternoon before. She hung around for a year after our Welcome Back and then something caught her, or caught her eye, the something probably akin to a better living arrangement.

We found companionship living on the banks of this old gulch that we call The Ravine. My eighty-something-year-old dad, Grandpa, frequented the ravine by propping a tall ladder’s base against a big tree. He said if he missed a rung on the way down, he’d just slide.
“What about the trip back up?” I asked.
“I hold on with both hands,” he said.
Grandpa dug through the tangles of brush and vine to judiciously remove the deadliest tree-chokers. We laid out something of a feeding station so that we could better watch the comings and goings of our new friends. Grandpa and Grandma keep the blinds wide open in their upstairs den so that they don’t miss the squirrels’ antics in the tall trees on the west side.

One season brought a doe and two spotted fawns. They bedded down in the across-the-street neighbors’ back yard. When Mama left, the twins stayed, mowing down roses, morning glories, and turnip greens. And then they were gone, we guessed to join the protected herd two miles away at the agricultural center.

The community of foxes scattered. After a few weeks, we saw sarcoptic mange on the few young males remaining. It’s the same mange that dogs get. We read up on the disease, especially in foxes, and bought injectible Ivermectin to shoot into treats. It was a long shot, according to all the literature, but we tried to save them.

Once the foxes were gone, rabbits appeared. One little bunny hopped around on the porch just in time for Easter.

Last spring, we watched a fat old mama raccoon stagger across the back yard at 6:00 A.M. like a drunk coming off an all-nighter. She climbed the steps to Grandpa and Grandma’s apartment, hopped onto the rail nearest the wall, shinnied up the porch column, and disappeared. We’d suspected squirrels in their attic space and had already called a carpenter to further seal in the eaves on the porch. We never thought about a nesting raccoon. Before Trevor, our construction guy, finished the work that might seal a creature in, he toured the attic space and pronounced it empty–and very clean.

Groundhogs greeted us early on, without damage, until they discovered just how good Grandpa’s produce tastes at its youngest and most tender. He named them, set live traps, and somebody (Dave or daughter-in-law Vicky, that tiny little hoss of a woman) hauled them, one by one–Fatso, Big Boy, Chubby, and all the others–to the spacious agricultural center property. All reports indicate that they hunkered down and belly-scrambled to the care and prosperity of the burgeoning Ag Center Clan. But last year, new-to-the-compound Gordo foiled us all, despite numerous attempts to move him to a better neighborhood for groundhogs. In late fall, neighbors sighted Gordo pinned to the ground by a coyote in their back yard, but we expect him back.  The neighbor showered the coyote with a hail of BB’s and when the tormenter loosened his grip, the un-injured Gordo made fast to the safety of the ravine. In April or May, we’ll all be complaining about the havoc among the gardens, both flower and vegetable. Gordo adores morning glories and cosmos, squash and Blue Lake bunch beans.

The intersection of human animals and their less domesticated relatives in the kingdom is a delicate point of balance. Every movement by either man or beast, any aid from the higher-ups in the food chain, and any modification made to the combined home turf informs and directs change for each individual. The great naturalist John Muir said it best, “When we tug at a single thing in nature, we find it attached to the rest of the world.”

We feed the songbirds, and a hawk makes dinner of the prettiest one. We clear the vines that threaten to deaden the trees that anchor and define the ravine, and the vixens label us as too familiar. We feed the raccoons to deter them from the garbage cans, and they take up residence in the attic of the apartment. We seal them out and put them back in their place, the place we invited them from when we first fed them.

We continually re-evaluate our relationships to these animals, some who gathered here before someone thought of building brick ranch-style homes alone this great ditch, and others because someone did.

The thermometer read 12 degrees this morning–in the sun. The purple finches and chickadees flitted and darted between the almost-empty feeders. The doves, in their puffiest winter coats, gleaned whatever spill they could find.

The supremely beautiful cardinals, male and female, orange beaks shining, took turns with the remaining small pieces of bread Grandma and Grandpa tossed from their balcony porch yesterday. The usually-present squirrels stayed in their warm beds. After I finished my third cup of coffee, I layered up to fill the feeders, and when I came back inside to the warmth of The Cellar, I ordered another fifty pound bag of safflower seed.


Maybe the coyote was just passing through. Maybe a family of foxes will birth babies here again. Maybe the hawk sightings will be fewer. Maybe Kitty will return for a twelve-month stint. Maybe Gordo will decide he really doesn’t like morning glories, after all.

Happy New Year~from all of us here On the Ravine.



Why They Came

First the black bear walked in. He left the door open behind him. I squatted behind the tan leather sofa while he rummaged through the kitchen cabinets to find some shortbread cookies. Then a white-tail deer trotted in. She stood just a few inches away from my hiding place and watched the bear. I glanced at the dark, shiny wood floors and feared that dear Mrs. Deer would leave hoof marks. The grey squirrel came in talking, tail twitching. “Cashews. Give me cashews. Or popcorn.”

Sometime after that, the dream ended and I opened my eyes and laughed out loud. Dave and I were in our favorite cabin hideaway in Asheville, North Carolina. We’d come to see the roses in bloom at The Biltmore. The night before, while Dave lifted the cooler onto the front porch, I read the laminated sign posted beside the door. “Do not leave your front door open. Bears have been sighted on the grounds.”

Inside, another sign referenced a grey squirrel that might appear on the deck seeking an anticipated snack from new residents. We didn’t see any bears, but the squirrel story was a bit understated. The squirrel stood on his hind legs and knocked on the sliding glass door. We were forced to encourage him by giving him popcorn and peanuts, which we had to partially shell before he would dig in. He was a relentless pest for the three days we were in Dad’s Digs—came inside the living room once and we lured him out with crackers. “Pest,” that’s what they really meant to write on the warning sign, not “pet.”

We did see some deer, but none so brave as to walk into the living room while a bear searched for cookies and a squirrel made demands. Of course, we were careful to keep the doors closed.

So far, no raccoon, fox, nor groundhog has wandered into the house here on the ravine. If any one of them were to visit, he’d probably come into The Cellar, the place where I keep an office and a second kitchen. One reason to appreciate this small efficiency apartment in our walk-out basement is that the dirt comes in here instead of the regular living quarters upstairs. The first landing for hedge trimmers, grimy work gloves, and buckets of whatever vegetable is currently prolific in the garden—today that would be turnip greens—is a counter height table that my dad made for me out of old lumber and four-by-fours. He painted the top turnip-green green.

The garden tools and produce—and dirt—are things that we bring in. And then there are the things that just come in, on their own. Leaves, for instance. Oh, sure, we bring in a few leaves on our shoes, but nothing compared to the brown, orange, and yellow piles that rush with the October wind every time a breeze blows through the opened door.

Some of the smaller critters have already headed indoors, and the entry point of least resistance is The Cellar. We’ve had some cold spells so I guess they’re trying to keep warm. It doesn’t hurt that there are so many good hiding places down here in The Cellar, either.

I don’t mind the occasional box elder bug but the mouse that scurried across the floor in front of the bookcases unnerved me. Dave came downstairs. (I suppose I might have screamed a little, too.) My good husband headed for the hardware store to buy mousetraps. He was gone for maybe ten minutes when I saw something moving from the back door and across the kitchen floor. I squinted my eyes. It was too slow to be a mouse but it was about that size. I eased up from my desk chair and tip-toed around the file cabinets to have a closer peek. A spider. A really big spider. Black, with hairy, meaty legs. On another day, I would find a way to move him outside; I don’t really hate spiders and I rarely kill one. However, my normal self had fled with the mouse so I threw a paper towel over him and stomped. Later I wished I had saved him in one of the fruit jars on the table so that I could show him off.

Dave baited three traps with peanut butter and placed them in various mouse-traffic patterns but for three days, no tell-tale “pop.” I was beginning to think the uninvited guest wanted cashews when Dave informed me on the fourth morning that he had “removed the little friend” and that the exterminator was coming.

Halloween seems to signal “fall-for-sure,” just as Thanksgiving says, “Winter is here.” People, critters, and things come inside. The grandkids and their friends from next door won’t be racing past the window by my desk much longer. Their scooters and bicycles will be tucked into garages and they will draw and paint, read, and watch videos-on-demand. We’ve already brought in the ferns and cactus, and we’ve moved the porch furniture closer to the house. Next frost, I’ll move the potted roses to the storage garage.

Halloween is also the date of my parents’ anniversary. This year, it was their 65th. Sixty. Five. Years. They were young when they took a taxi from the Smith County hills to just over the Georgia state line, just seventeen and fifteen. They looked young at their anniversary gala on Sunday afternoon, an event held in an old mansion that serves as the fellowship hall for Southeast United Methodist Church. Mom dolled up in an ivory embroidered suit with copper and silver accessories. Dad strutted around in his best black suit, an ivory rose tucked into his lapel, and leaned on his cane when he stopped to visit. Mom received most of the guests at a reserved table, but she eased around the room with Dad two or three times, once to pose with the stacked cake and once to receive the short blessing offered by Pastor Ann Cover.

The guests were plentiful and so were the reasons they came. Some came because they’re family; Mom and Dad lived away from Tennessee for most of their married life and every family gathering is a treat. On the memory-video, Aunt Bessie said, “See, now, if you’d stayed in California, I would have missed this.” Some were friends from church; one said, “We are so happy to have you here teaching our Sunday school class.” Some were members of the church Dad retired from; they said they’d never forget Mom and Dad. Heatherly said, “We just love your mama and daddy.” Some were members of a church that Dad pastored when they were teenagers; Jackie Edwards said, “Brother Blair, you’ve been my favorite for over fifty years.” Some worked with Mom when she was a credit manager for a boot company; Bill Black said, “We’ve made the 50th and the 60th and now the 65th and we’ll be here for the 70th—You are going to have another party, aren’t you?”

After the party, Dave and I had to make two trips in the van to bring home the decorations, dishes, and leftover cake. It was a really, really big tiered—no, “stacked”—cake that I carried in my lap on the second trip, the backend of the van full again. We agreed to take the cake in and leave everything else to unload the next morning.

Dave opened the passenger door and I eased out with the cake, being careful to keep it upright. I planned to re-frost the top where we had removed just one tier and take it to the Nashville Rescue Mission where they would serve it as dessert for dinner.

“This cake turned out beautiful,” I said. I had obsessed over the cake, a home creation a friend and I concocted. My friend has decorated a wedding cake. I had not, and until the bouquet of red roses, dogwood, fringe plant, and crape myrtle transformed the monstrosity, I almost would have paid somebody to take it.

Dave told me several times, “People aren’t coming to the party for the cake.” Well, no, that wasn’t the reason they came to Mom and Dad’s anniversary reception, but I was still thrilled—okay, “relieved”—when several ladies said it was the prettiest cake they’d ever seen. They even said it was the best-tasting white cake they’d ever had.

Just as I sat the cake down on the turnip-green table, I remembered the extra hors d’oeuvres I’d brought home. “Oh, shoot, Dave, those leftovers are somewhere in the back of the van, under something.”

It was dark, and we had not turned on the floodlights (switches upstairs) on the back drive and patio. The only light turned on was the motion-detector fixture over The Cellar’s door and we have it set to turn off after sixty seconds.

“Just wave or run around in front of it—and I’ll find the food,” I said.

Dave propped The Cellar door open and stationed himself.

“Well, we may as well take this stuff in if I’m going to have to move it anyway,” I said as I lifted item after item.

“Yeah, no need to move it twice,” Dave said and came for his first load.

While I started to dig again, Dave headed inside, his arms full of candles, dried boughs of fall berries, and tablecloths. As he set his load down, pushing bags under the table, the light clicked off. He hurried back out to wave it back on.

“Hey,” I heard him holler, “Get away from there!”

I jumped. Dave wasn’t talking to me. He was yelling at a raccoon making a run for The Cellar’s open door.

Now, that raccoon wasn’t cold and he didn’t need a place to hide. He did not express admiration for Mom and Dad’s sixty-five years of marriage nor did he claim nostalgia for having known them for so many years.

But he did have a reason. The raccoon came for the cake.


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