From whence she came I do not know. Her shadow glides over me and snow and soars silently across the valley meadow– over Kickin’ Mule Creek, over another meadow where she alights heavily in a sentinel Ponderosa Pine. The dogs seem to have completely missed the turkey hen’s passing.
Sixty head of elk have worn a snow packed path through the meadows, into Spanish Oak alley where the lichen and moss streams down from branches; their path angling sharply downward and crossing Kickin’ Mule Creek. Professor Skookum, Gypsy, Cowboy, and I follow the easy elk road instead of trudging our own path through three feet of snow.
Like buckshot from a shotgun—a rising spray of eleven mallards peppers the sky after the dogs and I surprise the ducks. They were floating in the tiniest wild-mint filled pool in the creek. A pool just large enough for three big dogs.
How the ducks got up so quickly and cleared the branches of the woods seems magical. Gypsy stiffened into a hard stop-to -flush, but Cowboy glanced up at the fleeing ducks, wagged his tail, and tore off in glee, but not after the ducks. He ran through the creek, up the snowy embankment and into the meadow other side. While twelve year old Professor Skookum just watched then proceeded carefully with me and we picked our way around slippery creek rocks—to meet the other side.
Below is the audio version of this story. It’s just under 3 minutes long.
The birds are busy feeding for indeed they are feeding for their lives. Blizzard feed. A commanding chorus of red-winged blackbirds are arranged like a cloud in the old gothic elm in front of the farmhouse. From the cloud– trills, buzzes, and thin seductive whistles. Three pipes of a low noted flute followed by a lusty buzz is the most majestic of the blackbird sounds. Punctuating this chorus is an incessant chip, chip, chip, chip. The blackbirds perform not for us, but somehow the raucous orchestra bursts through our glass windows and fills the living room with sound.
When the blackbirds descend onto the platform feeders, the platforms swing and wildly. Older males flick their bright red epaulets and the younger males keep their wings in close.
Mostly, posturing is minimal, because everyone is focused on getting food. The males and the striped females swing side by side.
Only a midnight blue Stellar’s Jay is bold enough to stop in and grab a sunflower seed. The smaller birds keep their distance.
Once the blackbirds return to the elm or the telephone wire, one can see the blizzard feed is not a single species event. English sparrow, house finch, Eurasian collared dove, mourning dove, spotted towhee, golden crowned sparrow, and white crowned sparrow drill for thistle, cracked corn, millet, and sunflower seed. A Northern flicker hits the suet cake. Even a denizen of the prairie the Western Meadowlark sits in a doorway, leading to the deck, watching as snow pours down and covers the grasslands more and more deeply
Snow has been falling so densely the past six hours, that the farmhouses’ exterior window sills are supporting many little birds. The sills are snow free, because we have a hip roof with deep eaves. Miniature-bodied juncos have lined up along all the sills. Their unblinking obsidian jeweled eyes register the environment as the birds rest and conserve energy.
The bleakest bird today is a young Cooper’s hawk sitting bunched and weary on a branch of the old elderberry bush just outside the kitchen window. The raptor might survive another day, if it could just catch one of the small birds flitting about it. But, already the hawk seems past the blizzard feed’s tipping point. The tipping point, the tipping point, the tipping point…
Though we are seeing a thaw- the forecast predicts 4 days of coming snow, and a fair amount too– a foot or so more. We’ll see.
The elk are here. Here because their grounds up in the highlands are totally covered in snow. So, they come down in search of food to the lower lands. They have torn apart the ground on about 50 acres of scrub oak in search of acorns.
Since this is becoming a tough winter- the neighbors have been talking about how to ease things for the elk.So, we have hundreds of pounds of grass pellets and brought in a large load of hay yesterday. My husband placed some of it last night.
Several of the neighbors are doing the same.
Some say you should feed the elk and some say it’s not a good idea. It reminds me of the hummingbird controversy – to take the feeder away or leave it hanging until the birds decide to leave on their own.
“The deep snow is just like sand for the donkeys’ hooves; the donkeys browse tall grass and shrubs as they step through the heavy snow; the grains of snow-sand grind their hooves, front to back, side to side, and come spring they’ll have perfectly trimmed feet. When I come backinthe spring, I won’t have anything to do except visit with you”. Matt Dumolt- Mule Springs Farm farrier
The sun. The donkeys and I stepped methodically.Grinding away, at a long narrow path made days before by my four-wheeler. I had tried to cut a path, so we could continue taking our daily walks.
Ziggy, the gray donkey led the way; I followed, but it was a balancing act. I had to place one foot directly in front of the other, instead of a little out to the side like humans normally do. Somehow the donkeys, with four legs, were able to skillfully manage a very narrow trail. Recall those sure-footed donkeys who carry visitors along ledge-path to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
For Chippo, the donkey behind, I was just another herd member.If I stopped, he’d stop, but when we were walking sometimes he would be so close, I could feel his muzzle brush my body. It wouldn’t take much to topple me over. So, I’d make a backward swishing motion with my arms— like swishing a tail back and forth. Just as a mother donkey would do, to tell the young one “back off.” Chippo respected this message. Soon we’d be three— walking on— and all three perfectly spaced.
Occasionally, I lost balance and stepped outside the deep rut. This was totally disconcerting, for if I stepped off-trail, I might break through or not. If not, it was a big step up-then back down. It was startling to crash threw though, a jolt, before I could regain the narrow path once more. Either way, it slowed us and tired me to step off path.
The sun was welcome, and it cast a deep light making white impossibly bright. Still, darker pocket-lines of elk tracks often traversed our path. And, I rested a while with Chippo resting too behind me.I spied delicate, spidery tracks on the snow. The trail meandered; it might have been made by a mouse. Suddenly I thought of the Sahara desert and a caravan— bright hot sun and white sands as viewed from a thousand feet above. Imagine this! The tracks of camel in the desert as seen from above would reflect a similar pattern like the tiny trail I was seeing now. Sahara sands and snow sands sharing patterns in common.
Click on this link to listen (2 minutes 5 seconds)–
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.
Click on this link to listen to the story 3 minutes
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.