Just Put One Foot in Front of The Other

Walking may be the most natural way of getting from A to B, but there must be more to it than that.  Are the dandy, the drifter, the dog walker, the peripatetic artist, tourists and their guide, barefoot pilgrims and sign carrying protest marchers all on the same footing?  Tomes have been written and TV shows produced about why we walk, who loves to walk, and where to find enjoyable walks.  A few famous and keen walkers are Wordsworth, Martin Luther King, Jr., Elizabeth Bennet, Nietzsche, Bob Dylan, and, of course, me.

But why do we do it?  What is behind this temptation to get out and put one foot in front of the other?  Nietzsche wrote, “It is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth.”  That certainly bodes well for this blog, as I thought a lot about it while walking.

In mid-May, I began a two-week stay in East Sussex.  Several years ago, a colleague from Rutgers University and I developed a summer class for students.  A simple concept with so many possibilities:  We would spend two weeks walking the South Downs and letting the rhythm and landscape, the people and events, provide a springboard for creative writing.  An opportunity for these students to develop a sense of place and express it through poetry and prose.

As I walk through a meadow smothered in wildflowers near Kipling’s home in Burwash, my heart expands seeing the abundance of daisies, buttercups, cow parsley, poppies, and soft brush tops of a variety of grasses.  A herd of cows eye me as I approach, all the while, slowly chewing, chewing, chewing, chewing the spring grass and clover.  During this brief staring contest with the cows, my mind drifts to home and the field outside our kitchen window where pointy reed bushes provide a backdrop to the wild foxgloves poking through for summer.  Together, both create a camouflage for the hidden-ankle-spraining granite boulders and rabbit holes that make walking through this field a challenge for all but the livestock.  An outcropping of gorse, heather and a slow-growing, but determined Rowan tree are reminders of the nutrient weak soil.

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Sussex!  Oh, lovely Sussex!  With its soft and forgiving walks, easily navigated with an OS map and a bit of intuition.  Even a downpour of rain results in nothing more than getting wet and muddy.  It’s rare to have a descending fog, relentless gale force winds and the cold weather that can spell curtains for a rambler gone astray on Dartmoor.  I confess, it is wonderful to have a few weeks of walks offering forgiveness under my feet and the freedom of simultaneously walking and looking out at the horizon.  While I strut along the South Downs Way, I watch birds soar above and the green undulation of the downs reaching out toward the sea.  I let my mind drift.  And drift it does.

In stark contrast is the country-side of our beloved Dartmoor, significant for its wild, untamed and elusive landscape.  Its jagged outcropping of tors, torrential rivers and hidden bogs require a constant vigilance to prevent a misstep or an ankle twist.   Remaining ever mindful to avoid stepping onto an unstable rock or into a boggy patch, drowning my boot and socks.  As Roger and I cultivate a quieter life, we find ourselves in a more demanding location.  In Sussex, I spy lovely cottage gardens – hollyhocks, gladiolas, forget-me-nots – and know none of this could ever survive our acidic soil, battering of rain and wind, cooler and cloudier days where nettle, moss, gorse, and lichen take their time to establish a tenacious existence.  The hills and moors of Dartmoor fold over themselves deep into the distance.  When one falls from sight, another appears.  The only limit upon them is the horizon.  Is loving this rugged and untamable landscape like lusting after a strong and silent cowboy?  Despite all effort, it may never reciprocate my affections.

On a recent walk with Roger and Millie — Sam electing to remain napping on the cool kitchen floor — we set out with a soft sun and puffy clouds above and a strong breeze from behind.  About an hour into the walk, a coolness descended and the light turned grey.  As we paused to note this, the wind kicked up and we were soon being pelted by hail.  The weather swirled around, causing us all to struggle with our steps as if we had been drugged.  Racing up the hill, we took brief shelter behind a tor and bemoaned the limitations of a weather app in this microclimate.  The wind eventually pulled back and the hail stopped, but not before we were wet, exfoliated and somewhat chilled.  Soon, the sun poked out between layers of grey and white clouds as if nothing had happened.

We walked home where Roger fixed us a medium-enormous gin and tonic and we moved into the living room and sank into the sofa.  Soon we would begin to prepare our dinner, discuss the news or our next project, watch the birds at the feeder, play endless games of fetch with Millie and massage Sam’s old and aging back legs.

So why do we stride out? In an ever auto-dependent world, it’s nice to see the country-side, get some exercise, take photos, learn about birds and plant life, catch up with friends, and even stimulate some creative juices unleashing a story or a song.  But, it’s more than that.  Whether in the company of others or not, there comes a time in every walk where we are alone with only our thoughts and observations, falling neatly to the rhythm of our pace and our breath.   And in that solitude, there emerges a sense of self and grounding.  Whether it is a familiar path walked daily, or a new trail yet to be discovered.   It may just be that no one can provide a sense of place for someone else.  We have no choice but to find it for ourselves and it is in doing that — taking it in our own strides, shuffles, struts, or lopes — that we cease to be alone.

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Hey Santa!

Santa Claus (A.K.A., Kris Kringle, Papa Noel, and Father Christmas),  Santa’s Grotto, near Reindeerland,  North Pole,  Somewhere in the middle of the Arctic

Dear Santa Claus,

What a year, eh?  What happened to it?

In all of the hullabaloo, I believe I may have neglected to send you my annual note last year, for which I am terribly sorry.  Rest assured, despite this oversight, Roger and I are thinking of you and hope you, Mrs. Claus, the Elves and all the Reindeer are happy, healthy and ready for your upcoming big night of global gift giving. What a job you have!

While you have been busy getting ready to travel the globe, spreading your usual good cheer (I think you have a rather large task ahead this year), we’ve had our own busy schedule.  Lots of work demands which took me away from Crockern nearly every month.  I did travel to some terrific places like Ireland, the USA, Paris and Brussels, which made it fun.

Lots of friends and family visited us from near and far, which was a treat.  We traveled to Wales and managed several weekends away to visit friends throughout the UK.  We even spent a week on a canal boat winding through the country-side.  Have you ever done anything like that Santa?  I highly recommend it.

When home, we set about our usual projects and a hearty thank you is also in order for helping us with a good year for our garden.  After making needed improvements to the raised beds to keep the rabbits out, we enjoyed a terrific crop of lettuces, potatoes, tomatoes, chard, spinach, kale, cabbages, beets, strawberries, blueberries, rhubarb, asparagus and onions. Even now in the midst of winter, the garden is providing us with winter vegetables. If you wouldn’t mind, could you send our thanks to Mother Nature when you see her at the New Year? The weather this summer was great for the garden and we would love to put in our request for another splendid summer for 2017. Along with the garden, we had so many opportunities for BBQs and evenings in the hot tub.

I don’t have much for “the list” this year.  I could use some time to rest and reflect on this past year and focus on my intentions for 2017.  I am planning to use the holidays for precisely this activity.  For Roger, I’m wondering if we might not consider some head protection.  There was that concussion he suffered while laying a fence this summer.  But, after seeing Roger knock his head more than once on a low door frame or beam in the house, our friend Miriam suggested he could use a “house helmet”.  Old stone farmhouses are not easy places for someone his height and I’m wondering if your elves might have some suggestions.  I know they are short, but I’m guessing they may hit their heads on the underside of a work table from time to time.

The chickens have had a good year and in preparation for the holiday season, are taking several weeks off from egg laying.  The one Roger nursed back to health is happily scratching for worms with her mates as I write this.  All six of our hens have recently finished moulting, so we are anticipating their winter break is soon coming to a close and we’ll be back into having too many eggs.  If that happens when you are flying past, we’ll make you an omelette or a soft boiled egg.

We think you’ll enjoy a few improvements since your last visit.  We finished the floors and walls by the wood-burner, making that room cozy as can be.  We still have to work on the ceiling, but we’re not in a particular rush.  Of course, if you or the elves are looking for a short working holiday, let us know and we’ll move the furniture out of that space and you can help sand the beams.  You’ll like the staircase we refinished and now that the water system is up to date, you may have some thoughts about whether we carry on with the work in the kitchen, finish the office, or start the small bathroom next.

When you arrive please be aware Sam is moving slowly and can’t hear as well these days, so you may need to bend down to give him a little scratch behind the ear.  When you do, be warned that Millie will thrust her chew toy into your hands and insist on a game of tug.  She’s not met any reindeer yet, but likes meeting other dogs.  She’s shown no interest in the Dartmoor ponies, sheep and cattle she’s encountered, so we’re guessing your team of eight reindeer plus Rudolph will be a welcome set of friends.  Warn your team, she does enjoy a good game of chase!

Bit of a non-sequitur Santa, but can you vote?  I received my British citizenship this spring, and with my new dual citizenship, had the right to vote in both the UK referendum and the USA presidential election.   You have such an unusual address, it’s unclear where you cast a vote.  And, does your system of democracy involve electoral colleges?

We are excited for the holiday season. The tree is up, decorated and ready for your arrival.  We hope you’ll have some time to visit when you come to Dartmoor.  With all of its history and adventures, the projects and quirks, the visiting critters and various challenges, the coziness and the beauty, both inside and out, Crockern continues to captivate and enchant us.   As you’ve always told me Santa, with the right attitude, each day can be filled with wonderful adventure and discovery.  Boy oh boy, do we have that here.

Safe travels Santa. I hope the weather will be clear and bright for you as you take your sleigh across Dartmoor.  Maybe there will be one of those super moons to guide you!

With love and warm wishes for a healthy and happy holiday season to you, Mrs. Claus, all the elves and reindeer,

Catherine

Crockern Farm,

Pretty much in the middle of Dartmoor, UK

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Magic Rabbits

There are small moments in life when you may call into question your beliefs.  I love nature with its great vistas, cool and soft breezes, and birds soaring on thermal updrafts.  Nothing matches the fresh green of new leaves unfurling on trees in spring, or the harmonies achieved by a dawn chorus.  Moments such as these elevate my heart and give peace of mind.  But the intensity and proximity of nature at Crockern brings with it other challenges.  And, seeing yet another furry-bastard-rabbit in the garden can turn my bliss into rage.

A whole crop of cabbages destroyed last autumn!  Holes dug into the flower beds.  A pot of chives laid to waste in under thirty minutes.  Chives!  Who ever heard about a rabbit eating an onion?  Crockern rabbits seem not to be interested in a specific cuisine, rather, they are content to eat anything and everything.  This is war.

Strong words, but when we moved to Crockern we didn’t have rabbits.  This year, it seems we could supply the local pub for their rabbit pies.  When there was just the one rabbit two years ago, perhaps we could have prepared better, knowing that when there is one rabbit there will soon be an army.  As a prey species, rabbits will keep reproducing in the wild in order to survive.   These little buggers reach their sexual maturity in 3-6 months and can become pregnant again within 24 hours of giving birth.  At this rate, it would take a Google algorithm to calculate their numbers.

About a year ago, while our garden was flourishing, I heard a piteous shrieking outside.  Rushing to see what was happening, I found a baby rabbit being attacked by a slightly larger not-to-be-named predator.  I ran to its rescue and Roger quickly appeared with a box filled with straw bedding.  We made a safe space for the wee-rabbit to recover.  Knowing it would one day mature into its reproductive years, we threw caution to the wind and provided it water and nourishment in the form of fresh, tender lettuce leaves from our garden.  At the time, we felt good about our efforts to save this injured rabbit.  In hindsight, I wonder if we weren’t the classic marks in a short con game as we now have dozens of rabbits testing our garden and our patience.

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Seemingly a single rabbit, but where there is one, there are many!

Just the other morning, I saw four baby rabbits eating grass among the chickens.  Our chickens have made peace, and yet we cannot.  Then again, the chickens have been known to do some serious damage on the garden beds, too, so perhaps they are allies.  And our dog Sam has a deep reverence for life.  A lot of traditional dog stuff is missing from him.  He never chases squirrels or birds.  And when it comes to rabbits, I recently caught him laying in the sun just napping while a rabbit nibbled at plants only a few feet away.

In truth, we could live with all of this if they would just stay out of our vegetable beds.  Last year, we surrounded the vegetable beds with seemingly impenetrable fencing.  Despite the fencing, one particularly cunning rabbit has repeatedly found her way onto one of the raised beds.  Each morning these last few days, we would see her on top of the same plot, scratching at the surface.  We hadn’t yet planted these beds, so there is nothing but dirt and a few weeds.   Beatrix Potter lovingly referred to all those rabbits in Mr. McGregor’s garden as “improvident and cheerful.”  With all due respect to Ms. Potter, I would quickly amend improvident to Grifter!  These little tricksters, driven by the need to frustrate and annoy, seem capable of all manner of magic and sleight of hand.  How else to explain their determination for jumping onto an unplanted garden bed?  What’s in it for them?  There’s nothing there to eat.

We needed a new game plan.  We needed to think rabbit.  And we need to do this before planting out all our tender plants this season.  Purchasing more scaffolding planks, compost and chicken wire, we doubled the height of the raised beds.   We secured the perimeter fencing.  We waited and watched.  And much like the magician who pulls a rabbit out of his hat, there suddenly appeared a rabbit on top of the same bed.  I watched her one morning as she dug a small area and sat in it.  She reminded me of our chickens when they are laying an egg or having a dust bath.  I called Roger to show him this behaviour, and in that moment, she had disappeared.

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The following day, when I returned from a morning walk with Sam, there was a deep and perfectly formed tunnel in the very same vegetable bed.  Again, with some form of misdirection, when I turned to reveal the tunnel to Roger, it had been covered up with soil.  A smooth, seemingly untouched surface left behind.  Where had the tunnel gone?  Where was the rabbit?  What was going on?

Like forensic scientists, we examined every corner, and possible access spot.  We eventually discovered a small hole where the rabbit was burrowing up under the bed.  A difficult to access spot as there was a giant boulder buried under the ground at that point.  Difficult, that is, unless you are a rabbit.  So, in a flash of genius, we blocked off the hole with rocks.  In another, somewhat dimmer flash of genius, we fenced off all the beds, barring this one as we had a plan.  Roger dug up a ton of compost and soil, laid chicken wire into the bottom of the bed, and returned the soil.  Job done.

That night, as we nodded off to sleep, we listened to the sounds of owls in the trees and another strange sound we couldn’t identify.  It wasn’t an owl, nor did it sound like a fox, and as suddenly as it had started, it stopped.

By early morning, I looked out the window and saw the rabbit once again by the vegetable bed.  Not on top, but a tunnel dug nonetheless.  With her dirty little paws, she was by the edge where we had placed the stones.  She had moved the small stones and by her side were three baby rabbits!  When I went to investigate, the four of them were gone.

This is the classic magician’s illusion:  Rabbits appearing from tall silk hats. They appear.  They disappear.  The single rabbit suddenly becomes four.

After confirming there were no baby rabbits left behind, we added  new and larger stones on this potential breach.  Wilful and unaffected by our prevention efforts of the past year, the rabbits seem reluctant to grasp our efforts.  They come in droves, like creatures in a horror film.  We’re engaged in furious combat.  I don’t wish a family of foxes to return and jeopardise our chickens, but I wouldn’t mind them passing by and helping to return the rabbit population to a more manageable number.   The rabbits have rightly identified Roger and me as easy marks and we could use a little back up.  Clearly, this is going to be a long battle.  The enemy may never run out of soldiers to occupy our gardens, but we are stubborn and will never surrender!

 

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No Kidding

As one day spills into the next, I’m finding it difficult to grasp where the time has gone? My days begin at a ridiculously early hour (Let’s call it: Thank-you-very-much Sam for waking me, but it’s not yet six a.m.) when Sam and I head out for his morning walk. Next, we fill the bird feeders, unlock the security on the chicken hutch, water the greenhouse, check the garden and tend to any weeds or rabbit intrusions, and then head indoors to have a much needed cup of coffee.

First hour of the day accounted for, but what of the rest?

In the past few months, Roger and I have been very busy. We’ve lifted stones to repair a path and restored three garden beds around the house. And when we ache a bit too much from this, we turn our attentions to the room downstairs, which is definitely taking shape. The walls are now watertight, framed, insulated and plaster boarded. Electrics and plumbing are in place. Roger has finished sanding the beams, which I will soon oil. After we have the plasterer around, we’ll paint ceiling and walls and lay the floors. With all this activity, I’m finding myself drifting to more sanguine thoughts of where to put the furniture.

Getting to this point has taken time, more than I realized. The other day, Kev the plumber said, “This was a dreary room and will soon be one of the nicest in the house. I can’t believe it has taken a year.” Really? A year?

Loath was I to correct him, but correct I did, “Uh, that would be two years, Kev. We put those oak beams in August 2012 and then spent a year seeing if the walls would dry out after we repaired the roof. We dedicated a year of our renovation to a wait and see program.”

With a wry smile, he carried on with his work. I continued contemplating which way the closet door should swing. Right? Left? Inward? Outward? Decisions such as these should not be rushed.

The room when we first moved into Crockern.  Old beams (rotting at walls from damp), old window, no ceiling, damp walls.  Our electrician friend Geoff described this room as, "A barn with carpeting."  We're not done, but nearly....

The room when we first moved into Crockern. Old beams (rotting at walls from damp), old window, no ceiling, damp walls. Our electrician friend Geoff described this room as, “A barn with carpeting.”

The old boiler, the old pipes, the crazy damp wall, the old window.  The new beams in place.

The old boiler, the old pipes, the crazy damp wall, the old window.

Two years ago on the day when the new green oak beams were delivered.

Two years ago on the day when the new green oak beams were delivered.

Getting ready to fit the new window!

Getting ready to fit the new window!

Just like Aesop’s fabled tortoise, our progress may appear slow and plodding, but we are steadily moving forward. The radiators are here. The boiler is installed. The walls are up. The groovy slate sill I picked up at the reclamation yard is in the window. The new window looks beautiful. The stairs are nearly done, just waiting finishing touches. And we have a door; the very one I need to determine its swing direction.

When I was at the reclamation yard picking up the slate, I spotted the aforementioned door. I knew we would need one for the closet we were building, and what better than an old one covered in paint and some immoveable hinges? I haggled and got the door for a good price, though I may have done better had I suggested I was doing them a favour. Rather, I showed my tell when I exclaimed, “That door is perfect!” Next time I will refrain my enthusiasm and say with a snarky tone, “That door is nothing but kindling…do you need me to take it over to the tip for you?”

With door and slate in the car, I made my way back home and began the laborious job of stripping off decades of paint. Five days later, the door looks like a lovingly up-cycled creation. The hinges now swing, sending me back to the decision of which way it should open and close. Once the floor is laid, the door will be hung. I have some time yet.

We do have an end date in mind for this room. In February of this year, I suggested 1 August would be reasonable to complete the remaining tasks. Despite my insistence to the contrary, it has become a moveable deadline.   February, March, April, May, June all came and went with slow progress. When we turned the calendar page to July, our self-imposed deadline was just around the corner! Five months? Where did the time go?

Try as I might, I can’t blame it all on World Cup fever.

Nor, the call of a good book, an afternoon nap, sharing a meal with friends, long hours on a walk with Sam, observing our chickens, watching the sun rise or set, trying to identify birds by their calls, any number of countless chores and distractions, or just marveling at the beauty around us.

The truth is, all of the above have played a part. We finished the living room in April. Then spring came and the vegetable plot took over our lives. Hoping to avoid a glut of too much produce, I find myself seeing what has grown most abundantly over night and next locating a recipe to use up a sizeable percentage of the crop. Spinach and goat cheese tarts use over 300 grams of spinach. With our cut and come variety of spinach, that trimmed them back to a manageable size for about a week. Similarly, wilting some 350 grams of Rocket and then baking a couple of eggs on top was a dish that stopped those plants from establishing their own Little Shop of Horrors.

I admit, five days to restore a door is a sizeable chunk of time, but I really enjoyed it. And if that sounds like an excuse, here’s more: The radiators we located took weeks to get ready. We picked up more hens and introduced them into the existing flock. We now have eleven, six of whom behave like curfew breaking teens, preferring to run about avoiding the security of their coop until the very last minute of daylight. How exactly do you reason with a chicken to tell it, “I’d like to be having a glass of wine right about now rather than running around the yard chasing you chickens.”? You don’t. Actually, you do but they don’t understand.

Our current project is demanding and some of the tasks just take a long time. Putting in the waterproof membrane seemed easy compared to installing the new window and replacement beams, but these jobs, while absolutely necessary, don’t leave the room looking finished, or useable. They are time consuming and energy demanding. It goes without saying, none of these construction projects could have happened without the capable assistance of our builder friend Andy.

When we do finish this room, we’ll next have to address the adjoining bathroom. I can’t begin to imagine the fixtures, and so haven’t. That project will have a deadline sometime towards the end of the year, perhaps into next.

Meanwhile, I’ve found this great website about keeping goats.

 

It’s Just The Place For An Ambush

We’ve started our next renovation project. After addressing the damp on the walls by installing a curtain membrane and channel for any moisture from the stones to drain away, we’ve fitted a replacement window and started the studwork. Next we will fix insulation, lay the floor, hang walls, and address electrics and plumbing.

The first time I looked out of the newly fitted window, I was greeted with a wondrous sight. Not just a stunning view through clear glass; there was something especially cheery about the landscape.  The Gorse bushes, which are everywhere on the hillside around us, had burst over night, as if by magic, from evergreen into their golden floral display.

Gorse lining the track to Crockern Farmhouse.

Gorse lining the track to Crockern Farmhouse.

In late autumn and into the harsh winter months, there are always a few flowers dotted about the moors, but it is April and May when these plants erupt into their full flowering. There is an old saying, “When gorse is out of blossom, kissing’s out of fashion.” So, it’s always a pleasure – nay, a thrilling relief — to see these little yellow flowers in and amongst the snows of winter. At this moment, the showy flowers are everywhere, so pucker up!

The bloomin' gorse.

The bloomin’ gorse.

Gorse blooming in winter snow.

Gorse blooming in winter snow.

What an impact this plant has on the landscape, both in colour and scent. There is a distinctive coconut smell, fragrant to some (Roger) and weak to others (me). Along with heathers, these are the plants we think of on wild, windy, and open moors and this landscape certainly would be lacking something significant without them. It characterizes the scenery, and with its spiny, needle-like leaves, provides dense shelter and food for insects and birds such as Warblers, Stonechats and Yellowhammers, the last of which will return soon to our bird feeders. Even the wild Dartmoor ponies forage gorse, eating the thinner stems especially in winter.   Since the flowers are edible, I may throw a few into a salad.

In addition to this first bloom of gorse, and completing one major project only to start the next, we have kicked off the warmer seasons by firing up the hot tub. We gave the hot tub a little clean, filled it up and had our first soak of the year. We sat in the warm water; occasionally feeding logs onto the fire to heat the water, and watched the light fade over the hills. The bats emerged from their roost zooming past with such speed the insects didn’t stand a chance.

To bring the hot tub up to temperature and maintain the warm water for several hours takes about the same amount of wood we would use in an evening in the wood burner. But unlike the need to burn seasoned hard wood, we may consider using some of the dead gorse to heat the hot tub. Before the Industrial Revolution, the highly flammable gorse was used as fuel firing traditional bread ovens and kilns. So, why not our hot tub?

After two years of living at Crockern, we’ve discovered a few things that are predictable, namely the weekend parade of tourists. Every Saturday and Sunday we witness people miss the footpath running next to the leat on the other side of the valley. Rather than make their way along this gentle path into the dark woods, they seem to choose what, at first glance, must appear an easier path, if only because you can see the road in the distance.

We watch lost hikers spend time negotiating their way down the very steep hill covered in reeds, gorse, followed by low lying bog water. We watch them encounter the river, which then needs to be crossed. We watch people contemplate false trails through minefields of ankle twisting ground. We watch as arguments commence, despite the blooming gorse that permits kissing. We watch as some return back up the hill and start over. We watch as others throw their packs across the river and then take their first step onto a slippery rock surrounded by cold water. We watch the occasional splash.

On one occasion out in the yard, Roger was sanding a door and I was planting potatoes when we spied a couple with their dog clamber down toward the river. “It’s just the place for an Ambush.” remarks Christopher Robin as he leads an expedition in Winnie The Pooh, along a similarly steep, rocky, and treacherous non-path. Winnie the Pooh, who believed an Ambush was indeed a Gorse bush, was sternly rebuked by Owl “My dear Pooh,” said Owl in his superior way, “don’t you know what an Ambush is?” But for Pooh, the true meaning of Ambush is the gorse-bush, the very one which sprung up suddenly when he fell from a tree. The man in this couple may well agree with Pooh, as a prickly gorse bush following his rather unfortunate, yet spectacular, misstep ambushed him too.

Later, as Sam and I walked down the track, surrounded by very old, tall thickets of yellow gorse and budding Rowan trees, I heard a familiar sound. Looking up, I saw the first of our returning swallows. They are back and we are looking forward to their summer visit. I joined Roger at the picnic table. We sipped our wine, watched the swallows and Roger worked on carving a spoon out of a piece of oak. Perhaps his next spoon will be from gorse?

Roger's latest creation.

Roger’s latest creation.

Gorse in bloom, and not, on Dartmoor.

Gorse in bloom, and not, on Dartmoor.

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Rap-Tors

Dartmoor

With record amounts of rain so far this year, it is a rare occurrence to be out for a walk without waterproof outerwear covering every inch of my body.  I know on this particular occasion I am taking a small risk as the weather could change in an instant, back to punishing rains and winds, but my weather app is telling me there are a few hours before the rain sets in for the rest of the day and I am happy to take the risk.

As Roger, Sam and I head out onto the moors, the sky is a blue-grey and the tors look especially brooding on top of the hills.  The sun has tentatively peeked out, affecting sepia toned lighting akin to an old photo found at a flea market.  With the wind to our backs, we three march up past Crockern Tor, and then north along the ridge.

We sloshed through the boggy paths past Litteford Tor and Longaford Tor, and carried on towards Higher White Tor.  On route, we pass sheep that will be giving birth in a few weeks.  We hear the sounds of dogs barking as they work with the farmer on the other side of the valley to gather sheep.   After about forty-five minutes, we reach Higher White Tor, clamber to the top and pause taking in the views.  The sun is now casting our shadows across the gorse, reeds and granite boulders.   The sudden flapping of wings turns our attention as a pair of Curlew fly away, low to the ground.  Looking up to see the parting clouds, we glimpse a Buzzard circling overhead.

We sit and watch, trying to determine where this magnificent bird will touch down.  Moments later, another Buzzard joins the scene and the two lazily drift arcs in the sky, either hunting or waiting for a clear moment to feed on something perhaps already lying dead down below.

To a bird of prey, the world is three categories: food, threat, or simply irrelevant.  The three of us are solidly in this last camp.  I’ve learned from many walks that coming upon a bird of prey sitting atop a fence post with its vice-like feet and solid long talons, fixing me with its steely expression of extreme indifference, I can safely watch back with curiosity and admiration.  That’s right, I am neither food nor threat.  In moments such as these, I would hate to be a vole, small bird, mouse, rat, fish, rabbit, or hey, even one of our chickens.  I wouldn’t stand a chance.

Birds of prey are powerful and fast, graceful and nimble as they soar above upland landscape.  And yet, despite appearing ferocious, they are fragile.  I suppose that is what being a bird of prey ultimately means.   They sit on the top of the food chain and their numbers are essentially controlled by the amount of prey available to them.  Almost anything can potentially tip the delicate balance of their ecosystem.  They are hunted, become accidental victims of attempts to poison other wildlife, or fail to thrive because of even a reduction in caterpillars upon whom the small prey feed.   I know many who do not like to see a bird of prey pass by the bird feeder, fearing the future of other garden visitors.   But, the presence of a bird of prey indicates there is ample food available, a strong indication of an environment in balance.  Otherwise, I wouldn’t see them at all.

As if on cue, this Sparrowhawk entered our garden. I concede it is a lousy photo, but it was stormy outside and all I had to hand was the camera on my phone.

As if on cue, this Sparrowhawk entered our garden. I concede it is a lousy photo, but it was stormy outside and all I had to hand was the camera on my phone.

And who can deny that it is darn thrilling to spot a bird of prey.   They are spectacular and spellbinding examples of power and grace.  Possessing top predator status can’t be easy and that means they will never be as numerous as other birds, so there is a certain novelty and happy surprise to seeing these elusive creatures.  Since moving to Dartmoor, we have spotted Red Kites, Hen Harriers, Buzzards, Kestrels, Sparrowhawks, Barn Owls, Tawny Owls, and Hobby.   Roger once spotted a pair of Peregrine Falcons in this very spot we are watching the Buzzards.  We have yet to see a Merlin.

Sometimes it’s not the seeing, but the hearing that lets us know they are in our midst.  The other night, we were awakened by a strange noise.  Still half asleep, I thought maybe we had mice in the ceiling.  But it was loud, too loud to be a nest of mice.  Roger went to investigate and announced that the sound, a pecking sound, was outside on the roof, not in the ceiling.  While instantly feeling relieved, I did stop to wonder what in the world is making that racket at this time of night on the roof?

It is too late in the season for Santa, but it had to be something nocturnal and something that could get up onto the roof.  That ruled out badgers, foxes, moles, deer, and presumably the Wisht Hounds from Wistman’s Wood.  This left us with the possibility of bats or birds of prey.  With sound as our only clue, we believe it was an owl eating its catch.  A mouse, rat, mole, rabbit or even a bird was likely being dined upon – whole! – above us as we attempted sleep.  Soon the sound stopped and we drifted back to sleep, content with the knowledge of a balanced and working ecosystem surrounding us.

 

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The Original Colonial Holiday

The day has come and gone and yet I still love Thanksgiving:  before, during and after.  This is no fleeting affection for the holiday du jour, rather, I simply enjoy every aspect of Thanksgiving.   There is the anticipatory build up followed by the indulgent consumption of food, drink and good times.  Of course, no entertaining is complete without the self-imposed pressure deadline of trying to ready the house for the arrival of guests.  For some, this involves pulling out a few decorations, ironing a tablecloth, and pre-making the stuffing.  For us, it was a mad dash to try and complete one of the two rooms we have torn apart in our endless renovation projects.  On this front, we failed.

Just weeks before hosting US family and local friends to this year’s Thanksgiving, we introduced chaos.  We decided that the 70’s style ceiling in the living room had to go, largely because we needed to better insulate this room and once we removed the wood planks comprising the ceiling, there would be no putting them back again.  This decision took us nearly 18 months to make, but once made, we began the project; just a few short weeks before guests arrived.

With no place to put the furniture, we worked around it.  Any one who has ripped out a ceiling knows that this is messy work with years of dirt, dust, nests for mice, water damaged insulation, rotten wood and other unidentifiable objects falling down onto the floor, or in our case, the furniture we were working around.  We would clear as we went along, but more than once I heard myself saying allowed, “Why didn’t we take seriously the mess this would create and move stuff?”  There are no answers.

So next, we started to sand the beams.  Dust.  Dirt.  More dust.  Seeing the beauty of the wood of the newly exposed beams was exciting, but we needed to treat them for woodworm.  This noxious smelling liquid had us feeling light-headed, even with all the windows opened.  And with all the windows open, we were cold.  Of course, we didn’t stop there:  We had the new boiler installed and the windows in the bedroom replaced.  The scaffolding, which was constructed to install the windows, broke our soak-away pipe.  And après-pos of nothing, we developed an oil leak to the Aga while all of this work was underway.  Another noxious smell, and a tedious project of eliminating said smell, added to our collection of projects.  Still, we soldiered on like those original settlers to the new world:  hopeful and determined to survive the winter!

As every school child learns in the US, a small ship called the Mayflower left Plymouth, England in 1620 with 102 passengers on board embarking on a dangerous and miserable 66 days of crossing “the pond”.  During their first winter, most of the colonists remained on board the ship, suffering from exposure, scurvy and outbreaks of contagious disease.   For those Pilgrims and Puritans who survived to see their first spring, summer and fall in the new world, Thanksgiving was a celebration for being alive and having a reasonably good harvest.  This feast was shared with the Native Americans who taught these original settlers how to survive in this new world.  This holiday probably has some roots to traditional harvest festivals and religious worship, but today, Thanksgiving is a time to get together with friends and family in a secular celebration around a table of succulent foods.

When I lived in the States, I would make my annual pilgrimage up to Connecticut to spend the weekend with my cousins.  Often, there might be as many as twenty people gathered around the table to enjoy traditional Thanksgiving foods.  Roger’s first American Thanksgiving – and first time of meeting any of my family — was spent at this table.  The countryside in this part of the US is beautiful, the company is always terrific and the food is worth second helpings even when stuffed to the gills!  Perhaps more importantly, hosting several guests over a weekend and providing copious amounts of food and drink appear effortlessly on the parts of my cousin-hosts.  And the house is never under construction during the festivities!

Covered Bridge

What were we thinking with our renovation timing?  This year’s Thanksgiving at our house – the first we’ve hosted at Crockern – would have sitting around the table the very people for whom I have spent over 20 Thanksgivings?  Nothing moves a project along better than a deadline.

Faced with the contents of the living room scattered higgledy-piggledy throughout the house and the time ticking away, we turned to our last resort:  We shut the door on the ceiling project room, rearranged the furniture in the rest of the house, and did a big clean.  It took days as the dust had drifted throughout and landed on just about every possible surface.  Next, we focused on securing food and wine.  Turkey is traditional, but we opted for something local and seasonal, and who doesn’t like the idea of buckshot-avoidance while eating?  I went shopping for pheasant, local cheeses, and more than a few delectable yummies.   Roger headed to the wine shop and stocked up.  My cousins, in keeping with the Thanksgiving tradition, arrived with pumpkin pies and the fixin’s for some traditional cranberry sauce.  We were set!

In the end, it turned out well.   We shut off the back part of the house, placing the construction zone behind closed doors.  We chopped and sautéed onions and garlic, set the table and lit the wood burner.  The food was a success, the fireplace ablaze with a lovely warm glow, the wine flowed easily, and with our new snazzy boiler and bedroom windows, the house was warm and dry.  In another week, we should have the ceiling completed and then begin the big push for the downstairs project (damp proof, build walls, stairs, lay flooring and install a new bathroom).  By next year’s Thanksgiving, the back half of the house should be done.  One can only hope, and then be thankful!