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Early morn and sitting in my leather reading chair, I happened to glance up from Walden.Across the fields and up on Razorback Ridge; I spied a large dark form moving. It stood out sharply against the snow and black etched oaks. I seized binoculars and glassed a cow elk, alone. She was plowing through several feet of snow across the impossibly steep hillside. Running —from what?
She suddenly grew still and alert. Still as a predator focused razor sharp. Still as prey when discerning dangers preceding life or death.Erect and tense, a solid statue now —she listens and reaches out feeling for threats. Just moments later her neck shifts forward and she pushes off again — a lone trajectory crossing the winter ridge.
Meanwhile, hundreds of songbirds have fallen on four swinging platforms —feeders piled high with black sunflower seeds, millet, tiny cracked corn, and thistle. A noisy frenzy- feeding after a long cold night.
The sun begins to tip above Razorback Ridge and the glow strikes the farmhouse, barn, and all the frozen lands.The timing seems off, but I have just heard the unearthly cry of a cow elk. So often sounded in the middle of a night, it’s piercing, haunting counterpoint overlays the songbirds’ trill, and reminds me of the cow now long across and every beings’ eagerness to survive.
Rambling chortle-melodic songs of red-winged black birds heard all around the farmhouse. Deep snow, but some warmth in the air, and it is snowing heavily again. We have a mile of plowed driveway to and from the farmhouse and down to the barn. The donkeys, the dogs, and I walk this plowed road.
Yesterday we found deep dug out areas under the scrub oaks. Many areas – perhaps 40 – where hungry elk had used their large hooves to scrap the snow from around the base of the trees, so they could reach the rich acorns below. The elk- perhaps a herd of 30 have come down from the high lands to search for food on the farm. We have the acorns. We have buried native grasses, rose hips, and various shrubs to eat. The rose hips are a favorite with the donkeys and the elk.
Busy soft lips —seeking and selecting— winter softened berries. Squishing rose hips—a burst of sour vitamin C —satisfies donkey and elk. Of course the donkeys can return to their hay on Valentine’s Day, but the elk must search on —through the deep winter snow.
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Four families have gathered since 1974 to celebrate Thanksgiving dinner together. The party rotates between the four houses, and over the years things change — a divorce and several deaths in the immediate families. Some of the members spend time in Alaska and can not host. The gathering has visitors from Sweden, and even strangers from New Zealand who are invited to attend to try an American Thanksgiving. Some of our parents die, and our children marry, and they have children. Some years there is enough snow to sled before we eat turkey. Some years we play games like Pictionary, or the kids give the adults a musical concert. In the early years new dishes and glasses are bought and admired. Some side dishes come and go, but we always have turkey and smoked wild duck. Conversation is good and easy, and varies, but doesn’t vary much in values. We are lucky that way! No fighting between Liberals and Conservatives. Being together is comfortable, and it’s an event we all look forward to.
[Green glasses enter the tradition 1982.]
[A dear departed one.]
[Grandchildren present a holiday concert.]
As one friend wrote me “Today is Sunday, and I am girding my loins for Thanksgiving week. That means that I am trying to keep my cool, not to think about all that must be done, and trying not to stress.” She expresses my sentiments exactly. As the years passed our group grew larger and larger, and when I joined in 1993, we could expect over fifteen for dinner, with some later years reaching toward thirty. Last year I had to farm out the three dogs on Wednesday and move the cats to my office, while we cleaned the house, the floors, the walls, and windows. The dogs didn’t come home until after everyone left Thanksgiving night! I had to move furniture and set up extra tables, and buy, borrow, or rent extra dishes and glassware. I felt like I was preparing for a big home wedding. By the time guests arrived, I was weary and rather flat, but still trying to smile.
The tradition has ended. One of the couples announced last Thursday at the gathering they simply could not do it anymore. And, I was somewhat sad, and I also felt a huge relief. I had already begun to worry about the next November when I would have to host. One of the children explained how nice it would be to have their own tradition— to start their own tradition. And with our gathering ending, they could do that. And now the parents can go and visit their kids instead of the kids having to come here. So, it all makes sense. A sense of loss, a feeling of relief, and now a few days out- even a sense of new possibilities. Where will we go next year? What will we do on Thanksgiving Day? For the first time in forty – four years, it’s a question. A pleasant question indeed—but bittersweet.
Click here to hear the audio version of this essay 4:50 seconds
The Dalles Mountain Ranch is now a public park located high above the Columbia River in Washington state. In the 1860s it was an active cattle ranch encompassing more than 3000 acres. Large herds of cattle created black spots across the golden rolling landscape as far as the eye could see. Since 1993 the land has been in state hands, and a serious native grassland restoration program has been underway. We wanted to check the progress of the grasses and give the dogs an opportunity for some new ground under their feet.
Cowboy and Gypsy raced ahead bounding between hardy bunches of fescue up the gradual hill. We followed slowly pointing out flower husks and commenting on types of plants. Gypsy was out of sight, and Cowboy ran back down the hill; I stretched out my palm; he hit it full force with his nose and turned and zoomed back up the hill. He was flying and bouncing up and down as he jumped over clumps of grasses reminding me of the dip up, dip down of the northern flicker in flight. Gypsy was being a bit more circumspect; she stalked and hunted for game birds.
The hilltop presented a view of endless other hills, treeless carpets covered with yellow grasses, miles of smooth mounds. The dogs were already down the other side of the hill, when they raced past a low solitary shrub. Up burst a barn owl. An enormous tawny bird with a big head. Cowboy’s eyes yearned upward, and he ran faster and faster —circling – his pounding pattern below matching the circling rising bird above. If only he could fly. Then a raven flew into the arena and the owl and the raven sparred. I ‘d never seen these two birds joust! The owl unsteady and the raven swiveling. The raven kah-kah! The owl —deadly silent.
And, Cowboy following their skylarking barked from below “ I will catch you!” His lungs worked like bellows. Young, strong— his powerful breath propelling him onward. Sprays of dirt shot upwards. He barked, “oh let me fly” as he ran faster and faster and just began to get a little lift.
All I saw was this year old bird dog in his Dionysiac fervor, so I didn’t see the barn owl fly away nor the raven return to its place. But they did leave. While Gypsy ignored this madness, and wove between grasses scenting for Hungarian partridge – remembering she had found them on this hillside before. Ready for the point, she was an elegant, sleek runner that barely disturbed ground or stalk.
When the skies were empty, and everything calm, I looked back to see Cowboy lying down. He was panting so hard; his tongue was hanging down to his paws; it seemed he might implode for lack of air. Where has all this youngster’s air gone? Spent. I shook my head at his folly. Bruce and I began our way back to the truck.
We picked our footing carefully as we stepped down the hillside, and Cowboy finally got up and followed weaving like a drunk, making a dozen steps, and flopping back down.
This was the procession down hill. He’d weave, he’d walk, he’d flop. Eventually I leashed Cowboy and he walked tiredly by my side. No pulling and farewell desire. How pleasant to have my bird dog on an loose leash. He didn’t mind that I was being so slow, and when we reached the truck he somehow found the strength to jump onto the pickup tailgate and scoot into his kennel. We put away our gear and Gypsy found her place in the truck. I’m pretty sure Cowboy was fast asleep when we pulled out onto the road for home.
The farmhouse stood surrounded by a sea of deep snow. Snow deep, so deep —four feet deep snow. We had just broken a thirty year record. What a winter, and although it was February, we wouldn’t be digging out anytime soon.
“There’s a cat on the fence post.” “What cat? You are kidding. Really?”
“If you don’t get out there soon and get it, the dogs will.”
He was kidding, but I pulled on my snow boots and trudged across the driveway to the end of the fence line at the back of the pasture. A raggedy dark brown creature mounded the flat topped wooden fence post. She looked frightening; she was starving. I stood and looked at her for several minutes before braving to pick her up, and when I lifted her, she began to purr. She was a bundle of sticks- skeleton sticks. I put her down in the barn apartment with a litter box and some canned food. Only an eighth of a cup. She ate eagerly. Better to not over do it. Purr. Purr, and then she got into the litter box and used it. She’d seen a litter box before.
Where did she come from; how did she survive in the middle of this terrible winter across four feet of snow with the nearest farmhouse a mile away? And none of our neighbors claimed her, though two said they had lost a tortoiseshell cat recently. They came and looked at her and shook their heads. By then she was living in the guest bathroom in our farmhouse.
[Conditions at Mule Springs Farm when Brindle arrived in February 2017]
The vet said, “this cat has been exposed for a very long time; it’s really a miracle she survived the predators and the deep snow.” She needs rest, food, and recovery.
So she rested and began to regain weight. But, my hopes of finding a good home for her were crushed, when I learned that she was sick. The extreme starvation had caused severe damage to her kidneys and liver.
Brindle would court Death but not marry him for another year and a half.
Meanwhile she’d rule here— inspiring four big dogs and two cats to respect her space and her one remaining sharp tooth. Brindle would often sit in the middle of a room, so that all the other animals would have to weave around her. If they got too close- swoosh went the paw. But, she wasn’t stand offish with people. She invited people to pick her up, carry her around, and pet her.
She made so many visits to the vet to have blood drawn, have her ears cleaned, to have various procedures, including an ultrasound and treatments for infected toes; and she bore all with composure. One of the vets believed Brindle liked it there. It was “one of her favorite places.” And, indeed she enjoyed every bit of attention and did not show any signs of stress no matter what they did to her.
We built a large window box for Brindle, and she’d spend hours outside watching the birds and all the farm activities. I could see her throughout my day as I zoomed back and forth in my Ranger. As time passed she transformed from being one of the ugliest cats I had ever seen to one of the most exotic and handsome of cats. Her coat was stripped brown and black, and as she gained weight her eyes went from sunken and haunted to expressive and clear. She was a female, and I had never really liked female cats, but she worked her way into my heart because she had such style.
A month ago I noticed Brindle seemed to be getting weaker and appeared to be losing weight again. She had lost and gained weight and even crashed to the extent I thought she might die several times in the past year. But, every time she’d come back from the precipice and recover. I took her in to see the vet again, and this time the blood work showed off the charts kidney values indicating stage four kidney failure —terminal. Right there the vet recommended euthanasia, because it wasn’t possible, based on the kidney values, for Brindle to rally this time. Suddenly I noticed Brindle was shaking. Her small body quivered in my arms as I told the vet “no, I’m going to take her home.”
As I later explained to my husband, “I brought her home, because for the first time she seemed anxious and afraid.” Why was she shaking? I wasn’t going to end her life on that note.
Some deaths need to be experienced instead of cut short, and I felt this was one of them. Brindle and I went onto hospice. She kept alert and participated in each day as much as she could. For two weeks she rode along with me in my arms, and we walked down to the ponds, and we rested amongst the autumn leaves as they fell from the old gothic elm. She wore her red harness and she lay out in the sun in the yard on every good warm day. Sometimes the dogs lay or sat beside her. She no longer shunned anything. She stayed in my office the rest of the time, and the door was open so the cats visited her all day long. Sometimes they slept on the bed with her, and on some days they spent more time in there with Brindle than they did in the rest of the house.
She patiently accepted the fluid injections we gave her daily. The first week she continued to eat, but by week two she was eating little. When she could not get easily in and out of the litter box, she wished to just hang out in the litter box so she could urinate where she was supposed to. I kept her and her surroundings clean. Sometimes I prompted her to eat a little or to drink water by squirting water inside her mouth.
She did lose weight, but not as quickly or as much as I feared. She never seemed uncomfortable or in pain. She was elegant. In the sunny afternoons I’d lie her close up to the gothic elm, and she’d sit there literally basking for hours.
The final day she lay over on her side; it was the first time she had laid her head down, other than when enjoying the sun, in fourteen days. We knew she was leaving. That day we did not give her fluids as we could tell her legs were growing cool, and she would no longer swallow any water. Each time I went in to to stroke her body and check on her she would lift her head up, eyes open, and acknowledge me. It was stunning to see her still responding – still telling me — here I am. I placed her on a small fleece liner in the big litter box where she could stretch out and be safe from falling off the big bed where she had been living.
This is where she was when I left her around ten o’clock that night. The next morning I expected Brindle’s spirit departed. No longer an “I am.” The body appeared just to be sleeping. Nothing ugly or frightening or even terribly sad. If there ever was one though—Brindle’s was an inspiring life and death process. Inspiring in the beginning of her time with us, inspiring in the middle, and in the end.
In Memory of Brindle Our Mysterious Snowdrift Waif February 2017 – November 2018.
Recently, my mother visited the farm, and we agreed we would spread my father’s ashes. We hoped to talk about him and share what we remembered and maybe even share some stories about times we spent with my dad (her first husband).
Clarence Denman Jones or C.D., as we called him, died when I was a sophomore in college. The circumstances around his death were gray. He died – possibly of heart failure —in a hotel in Florida, and his body was not discovered until the next day by the maid.
After my dad was cremated, the urn was mailed to me at mother’s home on Garret Street in Vienna, Virginia, and she gave me the box when I visited during school break.
Fast forward thirty five years, many moves for me from Maryland, to New Orleans, Oregon, Alaska, and back to Oregon. Two husbands. Several more dogs and cats, a parrot, two donkeys, and many pigeons. The box accompanied me everywhere and through all the various phases of my life. I never opened the box or spread the ashes, because I never found the right place or the suitable time.
C. D. and I took a trip before he died to Graves Mountain Lodge in the Shenandoah Mountains Virginia. We enjoyed sitting in the rocking chairs on the lodge’s long porch, and we hiked each day in the Virginia woods. One of our hikes took us up so high, and we sat on a ledge overlooking a valley. C.D. loved this view; the lodge, the relaxing, and the time spent together. I always remembered that place, and so one day I realized it was time to spread my father’s ashes on my own farm— way up high, and it was only right to do this with my mother by my side. So we planned to drive with the four-wheeler up to one of the the highest places on the farm overlooking the wide prairie valley.
We did this, and we told stories, and laughed, and thought back on ole nine-fingered Cash Deposit (as he was affectionally called). And, then I slit the weathered tape on the box and took out a round copper urn- that looked a lot like a can of paint. I pried open the lid with the sharp end of a hay hook. Inside we saw ground up bones and gravel.
The plan was I would drop out half the can, and mother would let go the remaining ashes.
I saw a small envelop accompanying the urn, so I opened it and read: I hereby certify that this urn contains the ashes of Ethel E. Frederickson. Died October 3, 1982. I said, “My God, you’re not going to believe this.”
“ I can’t believe it – these are not C.D.’s ashes. I’ve been carrying this box around for thirty-five years, and it’s Ethel, not C.D.”
We were startled, and I felt a temporary swelling of keen disappointment. Had I been cheated? Of course it was funny too. And we wondered who got C.D. those many years ago, and mom comforted herself by hoping it really was C.D.’s ashes, and the information inside the envelope was incorrect.
But, In the end, we did a beautiful job of blowing Ethel’s ashes across the yellow-dry grasses during early autumn at Mule Springs Farm.
We thought about C.D., and we wondered about Ethel, who she was, what life she lived, and who her people were. C.D. and Ethel were both released that day, and now that a week has passed; it all seems okay; I’m glad we held the ceremony and we spoke about my dad and mom and I had some time to reflect what he meant to us in our lives.
And if Ethel was really there too – she was welcome.
Bruce and some of our musician friends from Alaska left around 6 a.m. to reach the point of totality, so they could have the full 2017 Eclipse experience. I was mostly interested in what the eclipse would be like at the farm, and whether or not the animals would show any difference in behavior. So, I stayed here and hiked up to the top of our property on Razorback Ridge. The dogs, Skookum and Gypsy, and the donkeys, Chippo and Ziggy, accompanied me.
Here are the notes and a few pictures from my Eclipse experience.
845 a.m. almost to the top of Razorback Ridge. Should I go on up to the highest point of our property? The eclipse will only last 45-60 seconds here, so if I want to be higher, I won’t have time to move. If a huge dark shadow moves across the landscape, I want to see that.
A jet and a large military helicopter flies by overhead. I hear American robins, goldfinch, Western Meadowlark, black-capped chickadee, and California jays calling.
Richard, my neighbor should be on the ridge directly across from me in 40 minutes. Another military helicopter… a small plane flies overhead.
A gaggling passel of American crow bunched up and gossiping fly up Three Mile Canyon. Skookum has found a huge cow bone, and he’s parading up the steep trail with the bone in his mouth. He sets it down to pee, and Gypsy snakes in and snatches the bone. We finally reach the top where an old stagecoach road intersects the path. I can see down Three Mile to the Columbia River, and up the canyon to the the tip of Mount Hood jutting above Dutch Flats. More chortling-cavorting crows fly by.
My neighbor just texted ; they made it to totality. Bruce just texted; he made it to totality, and he and the other musicians are just setting up to entertain the crowd. Both groups are parked along the highway. Cows at Abbas’ farm are mooing.
I’m at the top settled under a white oak and listening to the melodic tones of meadowlarks as the birds sweep from tree to tree. Usually, I see those birds in the prairie below and not so much in the ridge country. A Cooper’s hawk perches silently in the next oak. Statuesque it seems uninterested in the songbirds passing closely by even though they form a large part of this bird’s diet. The donkeys are coming up slowly from the lower trail. I hope they get closer, so I can observe them when the event happens.
9:08 a.m. Donkeys and dogs are close by my tree. I can hear Chippo’s rumbling gut sounds. Skookum’s butt is on my shoe. Gypsy crunches her bone. A small plane passes by. Dead Still. A Downy woodpecker chases another Downy woodpecker. 9:28 slight breeze and feels slightly cooler. Two small planes flying in tandem fly over my head. 9:48 I think I hear crickets. Is that what I hear?
In ten minutes Fred Meyer’s in downtown The Dalles will close its doors from 10 – 10:45 a.m. to allow its employees in The Dalles to experience the 2017 Eclipse.
I’m watching the shadows made by the tree I’m sitting under. They’ve moved and expanded, but still I think it’s just a result of the sun rising higher in the sky. Perhaps ….
9:45 a.m. and another small plane passes overhead; they must be charters to the eclipse. Two Common ravens fly twenty feet above me. A lot of bird activity today! Both donkeys have moved off, and are thirty or so feet away. They have paused grazing and raise their heads. It is cooler. Another small plane passes overhead. 9:59 a.m. and Lorie’s dogs are barking on the next farm. Donkeys are too far away now for me to see what they are doing. 10:08 another small plane. Light is more flat. 10:10 birds continue singing as normal, but the light is flat and odd. I’m standing along the barbed wire fence line – the highest point of Mule Springs Farm. The dogs are beside me. It’s cool enough now to slip my bandana over my ears. Where is my fleece? Sepulcher light now —flat—despondent— and sluggish. My shadow is long and Skookum’s shadow makes him look like he’s on stilts. The eclipse is definitely happening now. But still birds act as normal. I think all this activity is normal.… Oh this strange dull, insipid light. I could be entering a portal to another universe. It’s suddenly late, late afternoon and the light is plain eccentric. Cool too —so weird. Through the Eclipse glasses I can see the sun is 98 % obscured. I just heard a white- breasted nuthatch. A midnight blue Steller’s jay streaks in. Gypsy begins a long low growl. The donkeys look up with mouthfuls of dry grass, and begin moving toward me. They come right to the place where the dogs and I are standing. 10:22 a.m. The five of us huddle. Chippo tries to eat my Eclipse glasses. Well past weird to indescribable, and then the subtlest , slightest change, and just so barely more light begins to replace the tomb-like atmosphere of the ridge. And just like that — it’s already getting lighter. A burden has been lifted. The dogs go under the fence and explore another farmer’s land, and the donkeys move off and begin grazing again.
10:31 small planes begin returning, one by one overhead as we hike back down the ridge to the homestead. No racing enormous shadow moving across my world. The birds didn’t go silent. The crickets didn’t chirp, or did they? The end of the world as we know it didn’t come. But, everybody wanted to be together for those few seconds when the sun went dark, and we lost, if only for 45 – 65 seconds our sustaining light. Just remember if we really lost our light, we would all die.
Thanks for coming along on my 2017 Eclipse trip.
And below are some pictures that Bruce took at totality. What did you do for the Eclipse—where were you?