Monday, August 13, 2012


WE HAVE LEFT THE DROUGHT BEHIND TO VISIT OUR FAMILY IN THE BLUE RIDGE MOUNTAINS OF VIRGINIA. We started in the middle of the night and got into Ohio just as the sun was coming up. This was Ursula's first big trip with us, and she was sleeping in the back. My dog comes up to Chicago with us often, but that's only a short jaunt. She is quiet and patient in the car. At rest stops she is eager for a walk and water, a little break from lying down. But we hadn't thought ahead about what we would do for a longer stop for a late breakfast. We decided to take turns in the restaurant. I wasn't particularly hungry, so Ursa and I went on a walk around the cluster of chain restaurants. I'm not fond of chains, since they are all the same no matter if you're in the mountains or the prairie or the seaside or the middle of nowhere. But here at the sausage place on the border of Ohio and West Virginia I made a discovery. I had noticed before that sometimes at the corporate chains, you can find poorly pruned apple trees amongst the ubiquitous flowering crabs, but here, with time to ponder, as I walked my little black dog I figured out why. These chains tend to landscape with what they probably think of as low maintenance trees, hence the flowering crabs. But if you just plant a crab and don't prune it, it will sometimes revert back to the apple tree in the rootstock. These apples may be smaller, and more on the tart side, but they are very respectable eating and great for pie making.

How do I really feel about these corporations that suck the culture out of a region and wash it with a deadening homogeneity? Well, “hate” is a very strong word. Let's just say that I dislike immensely to drive 8 hours to arrive at a restaurant identical to the one at home. But here, in a cardboard, artificial community encompassing the sausage place, the 24 hour breakfast place, a couple of hotels and gas stations, and a drive through taco place and a couple of burger joints, I figure I can pinch a few apples if I happen to find them. Clearly nobody else wants them, except maybe a rogue squirrel or a rat that frequents the dumpsters out back of each of these places. I fill my arms with apples and hope that another sharp-eyed baker of pies will find the rest. 

Back on the road, over hills and under them, we find ourselves on a two lane highway snaking through the mountains. Here, everything is green, and flowers bloom as they do in my dreams. I believe the Blue Ridge Mountains also suffer from a drought, but not as heavily as we suffer in the Midwest. At any rate, the ramble of Black Eyed Susans at the side of the road gave me a melancholy homesickness for what I didn't have at home. We arrive in time for hugs and a tour around the hunting lodge turned family homestead, and a walk down the path to see the remains of an even older dwelling. Nothing left but the stone fireplace and chimney, about 30 feet tall. A great place, we are told, for a barbeque picnic, especially in the winter, and it sounds lovely. Ursula thinks she is in heaven, tearing ahead on the path and racing up the hills. In the fading daylight we find our way home to dinner. Inside we are temporarily distracted with catching up and visiting, and my dog snatches two steaks from the counter before being caught. Babs, ever the hostess, graciously brushes off our apologies, and she and I rethink the menu, cubing the meat and piercing it alternately with mushrooms and peppers for shish-kebabs. Ursula sleeps off her crime, while we talk and visit and eat and drink into the night.

 In the morning, Ursa and I take a walk down the path and scare up a turkey family. They crossed the path about 20 yards ahead of us, 2 or 3 adults and several half grown poults. My dog took off, but then thought better of the chase when I called her back. Then I thought better of an early morning walk with just the two of us. It's not that I don't want to meet the resident bear; I do. I just don't want to meet him alone, or even with a silly dog. Even with one who looked exactly like a bear cub when she was little. Even one who shares his name.


 By Ursula
SOMETHING IS GOING ON. She went to bed as soon as we put the chickens in. Now that I know what She wants, I can be very helpful. She wants me to watch very carefully and wait, making sure all of those goofy birds go in. Sometimes they get right up to the door, but then lose heart, silly birds. Then I have to chase them around the coop again, only slowly, slowly. She walks behind me, speaking softly. We are a good team. But then She went straight to bed. Something is going on.

They were putting things in the car. The young one, too. Last time this happened They went away. I went back and forth, back and forth, trying to tell them with my eyes, “Don't go away.” Last time the one who came gave me food and pats, but I was worried. They were gone a long time.

He is cooking. It smells good, and maybe He will go out and leave the meat. I will lie here and pretend to sleep, but I am watching. It smells good. Why is he cooking after dark? Are they leaving again?

Now they are all sleeping. And the food is way up high in a box where I can't reach it. What is going on?!?

 She is up. Turning on lights. She goes from room to room, turning on lights. I think she is angry. No, frustrated. She wants them to do something. Finally they understand. Why are they getting up in the dark? They go back and forth, carrying things to the car. They open the back where I sit sometimes! I jump up! I jump up! I am a good dog! They go back inside, but the door is still open. Guys? Guys? Where are you going?

 We are all in the car! I am going! It is dark and I sleep. I sleep. The car goes. It goes. The light comes and we go. I see cars chasing us. I see color and light and cars. She comes and puts the nose leash on me. It's not my favorite thing, but walking is my favorite thing. Walking and nose leash. Water. Smells. Dogs!! We go in the car, we go on a walk. One time He and The Young Ones went inside. She and I stayed out. She found an apple tree. I found a puddle in a sea of cement. It was more water than we've had at home in awhile. I lay down in it and had a good soak. He came out and we sat by a tree while She went in and got the young ones.
 Now we all get out! No leash! More people who smell good. I get pats. We go on a big walk with no leash! Trees! The ground goes straight up to the sky! A big puddle that rushes. I go in. I smell fish, frogs, birds, so many good things. We go inside and no one is watching. I smell meat. I can reach it. So much meat! I stand up, just to smell. It is good meat! So good. I see another one! Oh. Uh-oh. I am a bad dog! Bad dog! She is angry? Disappointed. Embarrassed! They cut up the meat I left and make shishkebabs instead. I am so sleepy! I sleep. I sleep.

It is day and He gets up, but she sleeps. I wait for Her. When She gets up, I bark. Hurry up! Hurry up! She pours my food and says, “wait.” I wait. I am a good dog. She says, “Ok,” and I eat. I follow Her outside and we go down the trail. So many morning noises. I see a big chicken. And another. I run. They cross the trail with smaller chickens. She says, “wait.” I want to get them for the coop, but I wait. I am a good dog. I am a very good dog.



IN BIRDLAND WE'RE STILL IN A DROUGHT, BUT ONE MORE FLOWER IS BLOOMING ANYWAY. Thistle, of course. I always leave at least 3 of them wherever they care to pop up in the yard, because they are a favorite of butterflies when they bloom. This year one has come up, majestic and brave, as tall as I am, and prickly to match the weather, and has finally sent out tight, purple blossoms. Some are blooming and some have already gone to seed. I've been seeing more goldfinches this year than ever, and they are drawn to my thistle. Today one perches on top, its weight making the whole plant sway. The bird can't wait for the second bloom of the downy thistle, when the flower opens a sphere of ghostly snowflakes. My goldfinch digs into the still closed seed head. One by one shots of thistledown float on the hot breeze as the bird's head jerks and pulls at the down, extracting its lunch.

White, puffy clouds sail overhead, but promise no rain. We did have a little yesterday evening. I was watering my poor garden, as I do every day, and noticed a dark embankment to the Northwest. We were on the sunny side of the storm, and it seemed as if the edge would pass just a few miles to the north. But then the wind changed course and before I finished my cycle of watering, the storm was heading for us full steam ahead. It was getting to be chicken dark and I put away my hose and turned to the chickens who perch on top of the coop every night as the sun gets low over the dying corn.

Earlier generations of chickens used to put themselves to bed at the appropriate time. All I had to do was remember to shut the door of the coop after them. This flock, like kids who try to delay bedtime, sits on top and I have to scoop them up one by one, and toss them through the door of the coop. Usually a few jump off and begin to circle the coop, but Ursula stands ready to help me herd them in. My dog hasn't always appreciated her role as chicken-herd, but now I think she understands. She actually taught herself to do this by watching me. One night I didn't remember to put the chickens to bed until way past twilight. It was a night of no moon, and pitch black. I was feeling for chickens in the dark and got most of them in, but sure enough, a few jumped off and had to be herded in. I was doing the best I could in the dark, when I heard a rushing rustle and Ursula was after one that I didn't see escape into the weeds. I heard her catch the chicken, heard its mournful cry. I shouted at Ursa to let loose of the chicken, and ran to feel around in the brush in the dark with no luck. Meanwhile I saw Ursula run back toward the coop. I finally decided to leave the probably wounded, possibly dead, chicken alone, and bring the dog in for the night. Next morning, I counted the chickens when I let them out, trying to figure out who was missing...but everyone was accounted for! When Ursula ran past me in the dark, she must have had that chicken in her mouth. She knew just where it belonged. Since then, I have let her help me herd them in at night, talking calmly to keep her relaxed.

As we put the chickens to bed last night, the wind was whipping the trees into a frenzy, and fat, welcome raindrops were hitting us, dampening the dust. I shut the door and we ran for the house to watch the storm from inside. The storm hovered over us, raining furiously for about 15 minutes and then moved back north again. The gauge measured 2/10 of an inch. My rain barrel is ¼ full. They say it takes an inch a week just to keep the drought from getting worse, but at this point, anything is welcome. We'll just keep looking at the sky and praying for rain.