Trick lives to hunt.
When he’s not hunting for dinner – sparrows and mice, he’s hunting the lambs, dogs, me.
The ewes stomp at him when he enters their pasture. They are not amused by his attempts to grab the lambs around their necks and lick milk from their mouths.
I laugh when he tucks himself between clumps of grass and pounces at me as I walk by. He grabs my leg, then sprints away.
The older dogs ignore his pounces. The puppies, though, find him a great play toy. They don't mind having an 11-pound cat tackle them and wrestle them to the ground.
Some cats hunt to hunt, and some, like the Great Black and White Hunter, hunt to eat.
This guy lived to eat, sleep and cuddle. Hunting was a means to eat mice -- and especially rabbit -- which were both much tastier than kibble.
His hunting routine went like this:
Rise from nap.
Walk into field.
Catch mice or rabbit. [He was especially stealthy and agile for a 17-pound cat.]
Eat mice or rabbit.
Elapsed time: Less than five minutes.
When Trick brought a mouse to me, I decided to keep him – the cat, not the mouse. A cat that hunts is a valuable asset on the farm.
In an ideal world, mice would stay in the fields where cats and birds would hunt them for dinner. In reality, the mice find their ways to the barns. Trapping and poisoning are not options, as we have free-range chickens and dogs and cats.
So, we rely on cats for mouse control. But not all cats are good hunters. Two of our three cats fall into that category. Oh, they occasionally catch a small mouse and make a point of showing it off. I think it’s so I’ll keep feeding them.
But Trick hunts.
I Google my name
Read the New York Times
Make a to-do list
Take the dogs for a walk
Clean my office
Clean horse stalls
Google friends’ names
Brush the dog’s teeth
Redecorate my office
Try my hand at French cooking
Google my ex-friends’ names
Dress the dogs in costumes
Give the horses a hair cut
Make a six-course meal
In early fall, when the weeds grown taller than the tomatoes, I fire up the lawnmower. The blades shred the weeds, the plants, the mulch, until I have a four-inch high patch of stubble.
I let the hens into the garden, throw in some horse manure for good measure.
By spring, the garden plot is ready for another season of optimism.
I can let sleeping dogs lie. Not so, sleeping horses.
Being prey animals, horses often sleep standing. If comfortable in their surroundings, they may lie down. Often, they'll snooze with their legs tucked and head up, so they can rise quickly. If really comfortable, they may lie flat out, belly protruding in the air.
My old mare is comfortable in her surroundings, always has been. On sunny mornings, she'll stretch out and snooze. From a distance, she looks dead. When I see her like this, I check my watch, and check her again in 10 minutes. If she hasn't moved, I call her name. I go out and see if she's okay. I can't let the sleeping horse lie.
Months go by, and then I hear them.
A couple yips roll across the darkness. The song grows in volume and number as others join in and a few add howls. Farm dogs awake and bark.
The sounds travel across the acres, going a mile, maybe two, before coming through the screen, into the bedroom, to me.
Our farm is in storage mode.
Grass has returned to high-growth mode and is strengthening its roots before the freeze.
Horses and sheep munch hungrily on the rich grass, creating and storing a layer of fat.
Inside the house, I cook and can tomatoes, put away potatoes, onions, veggies, for the cold months to come.
My two pensioners wear parkas, my young mare, a sweatshirt.
As they've aged, my horses have grown thicker and thicker winter coats. Now in their 20s, they sport coats that are both long and thick, coats that invite me to bury my fingers in them and feel the bones, muscle and fat that lie below.
It is mid-September and my horses have Chewbacca ears. In another month or so, they'll be even bushier and hairier.
My horses started growing their winter coats a few months ago. After the summer solstice, the daylight signals them to shed their summer coats and start growing their winter ones. They've been working at it for some time now, but have a ways to go before they're in full fluff.
In my 20s, I pitched a tent in campgrounds. In the mornings, I'd climb out of the tent and into the damp outdoors, and wave to my temporary neighbors.
In my 30s, my husband and I gave up camping. At night, we fell asleep, listening to crickets outside our farmhouse window. In the mornings, I looked out onto hayfields and sometimes saw the deer or rabbit in the early morning dawn. Our nearest neighbors are a quarter-mile away. Could we get closer to nature?
In my 40s, a friend invited me to spend the night in a tipi pitched in the middle of a 10-acre horse pasture. She built a fire inside the tipi and I fell asleep watching the logs burn and listening to the horses outside pull and munch grass.
Last night, I picked lettuce and spinach from the garden.
I tossed squash and potatoes on the grill.
I unwrapped the lamb chops and grilled those too.
Minutes later, my husband and I sat on the back porch, looking at the garden and the sheep grazing in a nearby pasture, and eating what the land near us had produced.
On cloudless mornings, the stars overwhelm me. How many are up there? Could one person ever count them?
I think of city friends who, when visiting, can't stop looking at the sky. Cities' lights smudge the sky, limiting their view to just the brightest stars.
I think of past people who used to navigate by the stars. Could they do it in today's lighted world?
I choose my garden plants on a labor-reward scale.
Tomatoes are high labor-high reward. During late spring and early summer, I question the pay-off as I weed around the plants and stake and re-stake them. But I love the taste of homegrown tomatoes, and nothing beats home canned tomatoes and sauces during the winter months.
Zucchini is my low labor-low reward plant, as it requires little care and produces a bumper crop – more than I care to eat. Luckily, my chickens love zucchini and eagerly await the extras. This keeps me planting it year after year.
Lettuce and spinach are that rare combination of low labor-high reward. They take up little room, germinate easily and grow quickly. Because I plant them in the early spring and late summer, they are the first crops of spring and the last of fall.
I look at the dressage pony and see:
A universal remote control with more buttons than I can count
An operating manual the size of a dictionary
I am taking riding lessons on a pony who is the most-trained equine I’ve ridden. I’m learning that push-button does not mean easy. It means I'll be spending much time discovering where his buttons are and what they do.
When mowing, I watch for the Frisbee and tennis balls that the dogs left, the praying mantis and toads that are escaping the steel blades, the trees still so small I can step over them, the droppings the horse deposited while grazing in the yard.
A friend recently asked if I had ever seen a hen lay an egg.
"Not since childhood," I told her. As a child, I'd spent minutes, maybe hours, watching the hens and waiting for that moment when one laid an egg. The cluck and standing into a crouching position told me the time was near. I'd watch the fuzzy vent feathers part and the wet egg emerge.
Those feathered birds awed me and I examined all parts of them -- from the tufts on their ears, to their eyelids, their scaly feet, and wing feathers. I wanted to figure out how they worked -- how they were different from me.
Those childhood lessons from the farm and nature are more vivid than any I have from the school classroom.
It'll take several weeks for those swallows to make the 12,000-mile-plus trip to South America, their winter home.
Will they be welcomed when they arrive?
And will people delight when they make nests in their barns, on their homes?
Will they be thankful when the birds eat insects?
And will they, too, miss them when they migrate north?
I don’t notice when they arrive. Only when they leave.
In spring and summer, the barn swallows make our homes theirs, building nests on the barn and house’s second story window ledges.
As the summer wears on, their numbers multiply and we get used to the birds swooping by the windows to their nests, to the droppings that pile on the downspouts and ground below. The cat ignores the swallows’ dives, and I come to expect the birds flying behind the tractor as I mow, kicking up insects – a moveable feast.
Then, on the last day of August, they leave on their migration to South America.
I am struck by the silence and stillness.
Beth's menagerie includes a flock of Katahdin sheep, Buckeye chickens, a llama, Haflinger horses, cats, and four Border collies, including a few that herd sheep. When Beth isn't outside watching the critters, she's writing, working, and convincing her husband that the animals aren't too much extra work.