Swallows, a Hopeful Return

Across the globe as we collectively weather the COVID-19 pandemic, we are hunkering down at Crockern.  As such, I’ve had plenty of time for thinking.  Thinking of science and epidemiology.  Thinking about governmental policy.  Thinking of how others are coping.  And more immediately, I’m thinking of writing, cooking, walking the dogs, playing the piano, gardening, reading books and addressing the bounty of projects here at Crockern.    All that thinking leaves me with one certainty:  If ever there was a time to contemplate nature, it is now.

After nearly six months of relentless rain and strong winds, we finally have a reprieve.   It is blissfully sunny and the land seems to roll for miles under a gleaming blue canopy.  The green and gold of the hills are dotted with sheep.  Our night sky is luminous with an abundance of stars.   My morning dawn walk with Millie and Brock is typical for this time of year:  crisp air and a light layer of frost upon the ground.  The bird song is triumphant.

It’s important to anchor myself with these observations.  As I look at my calendar, I’m reminded that only a few months ago the political caucuses in the USA began and Brexit preparations continued to fill the news.  Nearer still, during the last two weeks of February Roger and I had the good fortune to be in Zambia on a safari.  Over the past few weeks, all of our lives have transformed into something different and what was once normal – kids in school, adults in work, and Roger and I moving about freely – now seems a long time ago.  It’s hard to imagine how much our lives will be reshaped by this pandemic.

And yet, somethings remain unchanged.   With spring upon us, the pied wagtails are busy building their nests in various nooks and crannies in the stone walls.  The daffodil bulbs are all happily blooming across the garden.  The green woodpecker continues to mock me with its laughter call as I daily set about filling potholes.  Our duck couple come and go to the pond, sparking our hopes they will have a brood of chicks swimming on the water soon.  Roger is repairing fencing in order that we can protect the 120 trees we need to plant from sheep, who will destroy young saplings in a single grazing session.  These are the very trees we had hoped to put into the ground over six weeks ago, when nothing but wind and rain confounded our efforts, and the news of COVID-19 seemed somehow distant.

When we were in Africa in February, we saw over 90 types of birds and I have no idea how many different types of butterflies.  Herds of Puku, Impala, Zebras and Elephants appeared around bends in the dirt road.  There were Hippos, Baboons, Hyenas, Giraffes, Buffalo, Kudu and Wild Painted Dogs.  We even saw a lion hiding in the bushes after dragging her kill to a more remote location.  At night, the calypso chorus of frogs would sing us to sleep.  Before drifting off, I might startle if I heard calls of baboons, warning of a predator nearby.   But seeing the familiar swallow, the very ones who migrate from Africa to Europe provided me a connection to my daily wildlife discoveries between Crockern and the remarkable gifts of Zambia.

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“Are you going to come visit us this spring?” I would ask when we saw the different swallows in South Luangwa National Park.  “I certainly hope so, and if not you, perhaps some of your friends?”

In the last several years, our swallow population at Crockern has dropped dramatically, and without any explanation.  Did they get lost on route, or blown off their migratory course with strong winds?   I’m anxiously awaiting their return.

Swallows make the spring.  Their aerial gymnastic arrival, eating insects on the wing and diving in and out of our outbuildings, is right up there with the start of baseball season or BBQs with friends.   They build their mud nests, have 2-3 broods, eat loads of bugs and sing their happy chatter song throughout the long summer days.  By September, they show their restlessness, fluttering about on the barn roof, and prepare to migrate back to Africa.  Their return journey takes about six weeks.  Swallows from different parts of Europe fly to different destinations, but according to the  RSPB, our visitors to England end up in the very southern parts of Africa, traveling down through western France and eastern Spain into Morocco, crossing the Sahara Desert and the Congo rainforest, before finally reaching as far south as South Africa and Namibia.

For the past few years, it has been difficult to trust their arrival.   Our first year at Crockern, we counted over 30 active nests around the property.  Last year, we counted a mere six.   Such a decline in a single decade.

Lots of theories abound as to why this might be.  Changes in agricultural practices throughout the globe, where pesticides and insecticides eliminate their main source of food:  insects.  The gradual disappearance of grasslands, hedgerows and wild spaces also changing the insect populations.  Climate change and crazy weather with its accompanying drought, extreme temperatures and weather events may have a hand in their decline.

It’s almost April and we’re bunkering due to a global pandemic.  Despite this madness, the leaf buds will soon unfurl with new foliage.  By May I’ll have the veg beds mostly sorted.  And hopefully in the next few weeks, we’ll catch glimpses of the long tail of a small bird diving, swooping and zigzagging flight patterns overhead.   There is something comforting in the knowledge that the Swallows are due to return.  A nod towards normal.   After a long six months since they left, we’ll welcome their return as they hawk for insects and delight us with our imagined stories of their travels from Africa to Crockern.

A Brief Resolution

 

 

I’ve never been keen on making resolutions for the new year, largely because I have always broken them. Why set myself up for failing to get fitter, drink less, eat healthier, or fold my clothes like Marie Kondo?   I’m not alone.  It’s estimated over 80% of us who manage to make resolutions lose resolve by mid-February.   I get it. The very thought of a resolution nags “I must” or “I should”.  And if I don’t, I have failed, which is a lousy feeling.  It’s simply too much pressure.  What’s with all the hype if they so rarely work?

My resolution failings are in with the majority, but I wonder what percentage misses the mark within the first few hours of the new year?

Rather than making a list of resolutions, Roger and I have a slightly different tradition on the last night of the year.  We sit by the fire and explore the question:  “What are the areas we want to bring into focus in the new year?”  To do this, we each write on a piece of paper those things from the previous year we’d like to let go.  Sadness.  Anger.  Stress.  All the biggies which can get in the way of having fun.  We then burn the paper and with it, those burdens.  It may be a little new-agey to do this, but admittedly, it is very satisfying.  It’s symbolic and we both privately say goodbye to things that have been weighing us down.  We don’t discuss our regrets; we just burn them and then switch gears to forward thinking.

Next, we make a little list of a few items we’d like to do in the new year.  Again, these aren’t so much resolutions, but more guidelines.  We both agreed that we wanted to be more creative, tart up Crockern with specific projects, increase our travel, address fitness levels (okay, a little more exercise and less drinking come into this, which sounds perilously close to resolution territory), go to an Exeter Chiefs game, and try to go to the movies from time to time.  While we came up with these ideas independently, our 4-5 items where completely in synch with one another.  We’re off to a good start!

As we sat by the fire, discussing some of our plans for the new year, we both confessed that we wanted to be more patient about the things which make us nuts:   People driving up the track, climbing our stone walls, blocking our gate, or leaving poo bags in places  along the track that mean we either continue to look at them, or we have to clean them up.  It’s a big ask for both of us as our tolerance for what seems like completely oblivious behaviour on the part of the general public reached an all-time low last year.  Still, it’s not making us happy or stress free to focus on it, so we both agreed how we might go about “letting go”.

When I mentioned this intention to a friend, he quipped “I suspect it is easier for an addict to give up heroin than it is for any of us over a certain age to become more tolerant.”  Hmmmm.

Alas, he may have a valid point.  Day one of 2020.   It was a foggy holiday morning and we are enjoying a leisurely breakfast.  The morning air is chilly and there is a moody fog across the valley.   I’ve already built a fire and we are both looking forward to a long walk with the dogs after we finish a few chores.   It’s a lovely start to the new year and so far so good with our non-resolution resolutions.   Traditionally, on this day many people set out on a walk.  Eight-thirty a.m. and we could see we were in for a busy day on the footpath past our house.  Still, we were feeling positive about the new year ahead.

Suddenly, Roger flies out of his chair and shouts, “There’s a dog running in the yard!”

We are outside faster than imaginable.  Millie and Brock bark with excitement but are quickly stunned into silence when Roger roars, “NO!” at a black springer spaniel who had captured and killed our Wee-Cockerel Tommy.

We rescued Tommy several years ago.  He was a Bantam Cockerel, and about half the size of our hens.  Never once did he miss crowing his start of the day at 4:30 a.m.  Never once did he get up and about before 8:00 a.m., having woken everyone else.  When first introduced to our flock of hens, he stood his ground despite his size disadvantage.  A twenty-minute power struggle ensued between Tommy and the top hen.  After much chest thumping and chicken growling, the challenge ended.  Not clear who was the winner, but Tommy earned his wings and respect from the existing flock and us.  He was graced with black and iridescent green feathers, which upon first appearance rendered him rather drab – yet when the sunlight hit just so, he shone resplendently.  Always friendly toward us, the dogs, and our flock of hens, he never bullied, and was a sensitive little chap.   We always knew when we had a chicken who wasn’t feeling well as Tommy would not leave her side.  He was courteous and served his duty to his flock of hens with honour.  He also was fun to watch when he ran, swinging his feathered spurs left and right from under his body in a pirate like swagger. He has been a friend to all of us and to our hens and we’ll miss him terribly.

The encounter with the couple and their dog cut short our tolerance goal for the new year.     We had no patience for endless apologies.  We had no patience for explanations about how they were “unaware we had chickens,” their dog had “never done anything like this before,” and “we had no idea he could climb a fenced wall.”   No, we plummeted into resolution failure.  Our newly resolved patience as measured through limiting the use of colourful language was a fail.  We out Samuel L. Jackson-ed the man himself.

It’s true, eighty percent of people lose their resolve to making changes within the first six weeks of the year.  Some of us in less time than that.  Tommy the Wee Cockerel was murdered by our front door by an unsupervised dog who jumped our fence.  Roger and I failed with our first effort at improving our tolerance.  Given the circumstances, it was a big ask.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s Get Started

“I haven’t read any posts on your blog lately, are you still writing?”  This question has been asked of me more than once in the past several months.  I’ve asked it of myself as well, though I know the answer.  No.  I haven’t been writing my blog.  I haven’t felt inspired, nor felt I had any ideas worthy of putting into words.  Where are my stories?  Do we have any stories worth telling?  Of course, the more time passes, the more this creeping doubt and fear of being unable to produce grows.

What’s behind my creative slowdown since March?   I’m certain it’s normal, but it has been months.  I don’t want to throw in the towel.  Instead I’d like to carry on sharing our adventures and misadventures.   I have my list of ideas.  I make little notes and observations on scraps of paper.   I enjoy the connection with others when I share what I write.  This blog isn’t just a summary, it is an exposition for others.  Selfishly, it is also a record for Roger and me.  In writing, I am offered a chance to reflect on our environment, our projects, and the very essence of what it means for us to be here at Crockern.  And yet, I can’t seem to sit still and think.  Is this what it means to have writer’s block?

I suspect the truth for me lays somewhere else.  I have been in recovery mode since my Dad died and the year of closing of his affairs.   Being his executor occupied me with so much to do, but left me no time to sit with the feelings of grief.   Being busy had become my destiny and the only way I knew how to operate.  Do.  Do some more.  Then do even more.  But don’t stop and think about it.

We also lost Roger’s Mom about 6 months ago.  At 91, Win lived a life full of adventure and quiet introspection.  Her times at Crockern have been captured in various essays.  There was her first visit to Widdicombe Fair shortly after we moved to Crockern, something she never thought she would do in her life.  Bookend this with one of her last visits to Crockern on a wet and muddy December, remarking as she stepped out of the car, “This place is a dump.”  We know it’s not, but we quote her regularly, particularly after extended days of wet weather.

To break through this so-called writer’s block and squash my growing belief of having nothing to document, I try everything:  Go for a walk.  Eliminate distractions.  Engage in distractions.  Change my environment.  Read.  Listen to music.  Turn music off.  Create a routine.  Free oneself from the tyranny of routine.   And still, nothing.  What is tempting is procrastination.  But my procrastination comes in the form of being busy with projects, usually work related.  Stay focused and not a single drifting and uncensored thought can appear.

The house is clean.  My closet has been culled.  My project list for 2020 is evolving nicely.  And for the first time in what seems like weeks, it isn’t raining.  Today, as I put on my hat and coat heading outside with the dogs, I begin to work on the garden.  It is in need of tidying.   I like gardening in winter for exactly this reason.  As I am clipping back dead plants, emptying pots so they don’t crack when it gets colder, clearing drains and picking up fallen branches, I noticed my mind begins to drift.  Not just to making a mental note of the next thing to do, but really drift.

While I’m bent over considering how to repair a loose stone in the garden wall, Brock is busy guarding the front gate.  He lays under what he must think is deep cover in order to launch a surprise attack to any dog approaching the gate.  From stealth repose, he leaps up and erupts into a chorus of protective barking.  As the surprised dog and its peeps move on, Brock knowingly races to the back gate, lies in wait and recommences his barking.  There’s no point in trying to stop him.  He sees this as his job and he intends to do it well.   Meanwhile, Millie wisely lays in a spot to see if she needs to provide any support to Brock, but never letting me out of her sight.  Who knows, she’s wondering perhaps I’ll take a break from gardening and take her to the river.  She is keeping all options available.

High in the trees, the birds are happily singing.  I stand to stretch my back to an upright position and am struck by the views.

Today the light is hazy, adding a softness to the winter golds and browns on the hillside.  The grey tors of Dartmoor are in view, perfectly framed and proportioned.  They make me think of John Constable paintings beautiful and brooding in equal measure.  And then it hits me.   The desire to sit by the fire and type away.  Not for any other purpose than to simply enjoy it.  I don’t have the feeling of “I better do a blog posting or give it up entirely.”  No, that towel is not being thrown today.  Just get on with it, there are more than a few stories yet to tell.  Where to begin.  There is the one about the new generator.  Oh, and the radiators.  The near fire.  Our swanky PH regulator and UV filter for our water system.  The wildflower meadow and the beginnings of our pond.   Erosion.  Endless pot holes.   Fun adventures with friends and family, Millie and Brock, and any number of other critters about the place.

Oh there are ideas.  There are the words.  And there are all the distractions to get me inspired.  Off to take Millie and Brock to the river.

 

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What’s in a name?

’Tis but thy name that is mine enemy:
What’s Montague? It is not hand nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part.
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose,
By any other name would smell as sweet.

 

So sayeth Juliette, from her balcony, fully aware of the power behind a name as she poses this question to Romeo.  I can say, all these years later, her question of what’s in a name? remains.  And if she and Romeo had lived long enough to have a puppy, would they have struggled as we did to agree upon a name?

Nearly a year ago, April 2018, Roger and I brought home a puppy to join our Crockern family.  He is now fully grown into a beautiful, strong, affectionate and silly dog.

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But for weeks, we struggled to agree upon a name.   Dale Carnegie famously said, “A person’s name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”  Now, I don’t know about that, but I do know names are powerful stuff, including a dog’s. It reflects personality.  It needs to be easy to shout across a field for recall.  But more, it says a lot about you.   Consider Fang v. Fluffy.

As a dedicated list maker, I was more than happy to create pages of name ideas in the weeks before bringing our puff ball home (no that’s not his name).   Roger and I considered each and promptly rejected most, and then all by the next day.  Hoping for some manner of inspiration we sought lists for dog names.  We dug deeper and consulted books on our shelves with Latin or local names for trees, plants, animals and birds.  One afternoon, I ran through an on-line list of baby names.  When that bore no fruit, I started looking at the names of authors, musicians, actors, you name it.  Briefly, each idea seemed pretty good until we thought about saying something like, “Sit (fill-in-the-blank-using-anything-from-our-really-endless-list-of-ideas)”.

How do people who have children do this?  How do they come up with names that will shape a personality, or certainly affect first impressions?  It is an onerous task.

Days before Roger and I picked up our puppy, I had returned from a visit to see my Dad.  My sister extended her visit as we were both increasingly concerned about Dad’s health and safety.  My Dad, known to many as Tom, knew Roger and I were going to pick up a puppy and had yet to select a name.   While chatting over the phone one night with my sister, our Dad proudly chimed in with the suggestion, “Name him Tommy!”  What could I say but, “Great Idea.  But Dad, do you really want a dog named after you?”  “Of course I do!”

But how could I? Roger and I have a Bantam cockerel named Tommy.  How could I name two animals in our lives the same thing?  That shows a complete lack of imagination.  Still, how could I let my Dad down?  Facing this dilemma I did the only thing I could, I lied.

Every time we spoke, my Dad would ask, “How’s Tommy?”  And I would say, “He’s great, Dad.  You’d love him.”  I couldn’t tell my Dad we didn’t have a name for the puppy yet. Our hope of inspiration upon bringing him home failed us.  With an energetic puppy with no name, I continued to tell my father “Tommy” was cute as could be and sent photos to prove the point.

We made an initial vet appointment and began to feel the pressure of not yet having a name for our young puppy.   The vet would want to know what to call him.  Puppy socialisation and training would need to begin soon.  We needed a name.

Our vet is a tall man and relatively young.  He worked for many years on farms with large animals before making the shift to the world of domestic animals (standing on a dry floor rather than in mud was a driving force as I see it).  He has an easy-going demeanour, floppy, curly hair, and a gentle giant way with animals. Roger and I both like and trust him with our dogs.  At this first appointment, he asked, “What’s this lad’s name?”  We confessed our inability to come up with anything. Without any hesitation he says, “I’d name him Brock.  He’s going to be a big boy.”

And just like that, we had a name:  Brock. It felt right, inspired in fact.  We didn’t need several lists, we just needed someone else to have an excellent idea.  I’d like to say Brock perked up his little ears and wagged his tail with delight with his new found identity.  Instead, he was blissfully unaware and tried to chew my zipper.

When we selected Brock, we thought he’d be a similar size to Millie.  And this is where the differences begin.  Millie never chewed.  Brock chews everything.  Millie loves to chase toys.  Brock loves to chase Millie’s tail.  Millie rushes out the door at night, barking away any evening predators.  Brock doesn’t bark at night, seeming cautious and a little uncertain; instead, he reserves his voice for the daylight hours when he tells every dog who passes the house to go away.  We have two very different dogs.

Turns out Brock (brocc, broc, broc’h) is Old English of Celtic origin.  I like that.  It also means Badger, and our Brock has a broad white strip up his nose.  He’s strong and, like a badger,  he has powerful legs and paws and loves to dig as evidenced by the state of our garden.  Millie chases balls and Brock chases the scent of all the subterranean life in the yard.

Up until my Dad died in August, he would ask after “Tommy.”  I gave all the training updates, and also included the truth.  I told my Dad we had given the puppy a longer name,  like a stage name for a cabaret performer:  Mr. Tommy Brock.  To keep it easy, we were calling him Brock for short.  My Dad gave a smile and said, “I like that name.”

 

 

 

 

 

The Vegan Hot Dog Van

In every town I’ve lived, there have been the regulars.   In cities, there were the old men who daily smoked outside the front door of their apartment building.  Or, the group of teenagers hanging about the corner for hours. Regular dog walkers.  Early morning joggers.  Solo folks saddled up to the bar having a bite to eat before heading home.  All our lives connected through something bigger than any of us.

Living rurally, we may not have the corner shop or the local bar, but we do have a cast of characters. The tall man with the curvy walking stick who leads visitors to places on the moors always stops to greet Millie and Brock.  The local couple who are busy tracking and recording migratory birds to the area, dressed in camouflage and draped with more than a few pairs of binoculars routinely stop by to say hello.  There are our regular egg buyers, dog walkers, bird watchers, or trail runners who are all part of our lives, even if we don’t always know their names.

There is one, who remains a mystery to me.  I’ve never met him.  And up until recently I had never seen him.  To catch a glimpse of him is akin to spotting the mythical Sasquatch or The Loch Ness monster.   If there were Dartmoor Trading Cards, he may be perhaps the most valuable of them all.  A vintage Babe Ruth.  Michael Jordon’s 1986-1987 Rookie Card.  The 1954 Ted Williams.  Or, a mint condition Wayne Gretzky.

It all began when we noticed a maroon and green van with a sky-blue top sheltered in various lay-bys on Dartmoor. We’d spot it any time of the day, but most often it was parked very early in the morning, or towards evening as the sun would begin to bruise the sky with a sunset.  There are probably similar vans and campers moving about on Dartmoor, but this one is unique.  In addition to its earth and sky colour theme, the side of the van shows a painting of a golden sun with radiant beams.   In large letters across the top is written, “Vegan Hotdog”.

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I ask around, “Have you ever seen that van?”  “Do you know anything about him?”  “Does he sell vegan hotdogs?”  “Does he live in the van?”  “Is he nice?” “Is he an activist?”  Almost everyone I ask looks puzzled, save a few who have also seen the van and entertained similar questions.  One friend mused, “I wonder if he does a good trade selling vegan hotdogs on the moors?”

I search the Internet and find little more than a story about a vegan hotdog receiving a 95% approval rating.  There is also a moderately interesting story about a woman who ordered a vegan hotdog at a big international store, only to discover it had meat in it.  Like any Internet search, there is a rabbit hole of articles.  And yet I uncover no information, not even a photo, to shed light on my local mystery.

This past year, Roger and I began reporting our various sightings of the van, sharing with one another where we saw it parked and looking abandoned.  Occasionally one of us would see the van on the move.  In the distance, just over the crest of a hill, the bright blue roof would appear.  We slow our car in order to catch a glimpse of the driver, this Vegan Hotdog Man.

He has a big white beard, but so does our friend Steve and I’m certain this is not a separate identity for him.  The Vegan Hotdog Man seems to be driving alone in the van.  I have never seen a dog or another person riding shotgun.

Who is he?  What’s his story?  Since we don’t have Dartmoor Trading Cards, there are no stats to glean from this hard to come by collectable.

With the new year upon us, I’ve turned my attention to making positive steps.  I’ve upped my exercise, not as a new year’s resolution, but just to get it back to what it was before my Dad got ill last year. I’ve carved out more space for relaxing with a good book or listening – actually listening not just as background – to music.  Brock and Millie are back into my school of obedience training, a casual but necessary school. And, as I do at every start of the year, I’m working on a clear out.  Clothing that has holes.  Paperwork which is no longer needed.  Books long since read, which someone else might enjoy.  And the growing pile of things to take to the local tip.

With Roger’s help, we packed the car with recyclables and I drove to the tip.  As I rounded the corner to find a strategic parking place for easy off-loading — metals in the metal bin, plastics in the plastic bin, glass in the glass bin — I spy the bright blue roof of the Vegan Hot Dog Van.

Can it be?  Is he here at the tip?  Should I introduce myself?  How do you start a conversation with a mystery?

I’ve had this overwhelming sensation before.  Being in an unusual place, spotting a celebrity – greater points awarded if they are a B-list celebrity – and not knowing my next move.  Do I interrupt their privacy with a  friendly “Hi?  Don’t I know you?”  I’ve done this:  A still yet unknown Benedict Cumberbatch at the National Portrait Gallery; Laurie Anderson in the women’s restroom at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; and Colm Meaney at a hidden lake in Connemara, Ireland.  Colm and I spoke about the beauty of the landscape and drank the water from the lake, but I chickened out at saying “I love you as Miles O’Brien on Star Trek:  The Next Generation!”  That felt too needy.

As I walk past the Vegan Hotdog Man, I clutch my bags of recycling and slow my pace.  He’s slender and tall, his white beard is thick and bushy. Beyond this, there’s nothing notable. Either that, or I’m a bad witness or easily distracted.  Almost as soon as I see him,  I turn my attention to the van, taking a casual passing glance inside the open door.   But he’s doing what I’m doing and off-loading things at the tip.  There’s no more information to be had about him than anyone else at the tip with our vehicles full of things to drop off in the  appropriate bins.

Perhaps one day, I’ll have an opportunity to introduce myself.  Maybe we’ll meet at a party.  Or, his van will be slightly blocking my car and I’ll need to politely ask him to move, sparking a casual series of questions.

Who are you?

Or maybe, some ingenious person will produce a series of Dartmoor Trading Cards.  The elusive Vegan Hotdog Man among the many collectables. Having just recycled several things, I don’t really want a collectable trading card, I just want to meet this man in the flesh.

Spring Into Action

The Vernal Equinox, that day which holds hope for a turn in the season, came and went like a drift of snow.  We may have recently experienced the astronomical beginning of spring, heralding the start of longer days, new blooms and warmer weather, but much of Britain is still shivering.

As I write, the fire is ablaze in the wood burner, and my feet feel like ice cubes.  Just outside the window, a pair of jackdaws are busy collecting fallen twigs to build their nests among the rafters in the barn.  They seem to be getting on with things despite the wind and now hail, but this is still not the weather to be starting a brood.  I am thinking twice about suiting up in fleeces and waterproofs to take Millie for an afternoon romp across the moors.  I feel as if I’m in a state of limbo waiting for an extended period of sunshine.

Long celebrated as a time of rebirth in the Northern Hemisphere, the Vernal Equinox is associated with spring time festivals and holidays.  It holds the promise of fresh starts, spring cleaning, flowers, long days and sunshine.

But there’s no sign of settled weather ahead and my twitchy green fingers want to get things done in the garden.  Our potatoes are busy chitting on the window sill, and in about a month’s time our plug plants will arrive for planting out into the vegetable garden.  My February hopes of pruning the various rose bushes, hedges, blue berries, and other shrubs is delayed by weeks.  I did managed to lightly clean the greenhouse during a downpour, but it isn’t ready for planting.  With the cold and grey, even the strawberries are delaying the start of their spring growth.

It’s frustrating to not be able to make a start, but the soil is still cold and sodden.   When the last of the snow retreated into dark hedges sheltered from the sun, the land may have thawed but it was once again saturated with the deluge of heavy rains.  We must be patient.  Experience tells me to wait to put in the carrot and radish seeds.  Still, I would like to get out and prepare the soil, prune, and tidy.

Instead, I watch as the channel I dug to protect the track from runoff has been destroyed in places by the cattle.  The potholes are growing, despite a mini break in the weather several weeks ago when we filled dozens.  The moles, rats, and rabbits have left us with some ankle turning land.  Repairs to some of the outbuildings remains on hold as it is too wet to make the needed interventions.

At this time of the year, it is hard to focus on anything other than the cold and wet.  But, there is a beauty in this seemingly dead of winter.  The grass is not simply green, but accented with colours of gold, brown and red.  Layers of cloud upon cloud cover the sky in multiple tones of grey.  Gone for the winter are the summer migratory birds and it has been months since the Swallows and House Martins have been here dive-bombing about the house feasting on insects.  I know their return soon will announce the arrival of spring, so too the Cuckoo.

The wildlife is different during this time of the year as much of it is in hibernation or just lying low until spring.   Much, but not all.  The earthworms are being tugged out of the ground by our chickens as they seek foraged delights.  The Sparrows, Tits, Robins, Finches, Nuthatches and Jackdaws are taking it in turns to sustain themselves on the seeds we put out daily.   And none of this winter rain, wind, or mud has stopped the walkers.   Why should it?  If we waited for fine weather, then we would never go outside.  These intrepid souls have been out in huge numbers loaded with their binoculars, cameras, maps and walking sticks.

At the end of last year, Roger planted 150 hedge plants as we are trying to create a border which is friendlier to wildlife than simply stock proof fencing.  A mixture of viburnum, maple, blackthorn, hawthorn, and alder to join the 120 we planted the year before.  Our diverse hedging should – in several years to come – provide a thick, messy growth of native species for birds to nest and hide.  Ideally, it will also provide a good natural hedge to keep unwelcome critters out, namely the sheep!  Thankfully, those bare root saplings seem to have escaped the harshness of this winter and the weight of the snow fall we experienced.  A close examination shows early budding.

One sure sign of the impending turn of the season is the recent return of the sheep.  We have had almost two months of them being away on their reproductive winter holiday.   But these ewes are of a hardy stock and will not be cloistered for long, returning pregnant and wearing thick fleece for the remaining months of cold and wet.  Soon they will give birth then we will be surrounded by cute little lambs, lots of noise and a new generation to dissuade from jumping onto our stonewalls.

As we changed the clocks, the light is lingering later into the evening, bringing with it the promise of warmer days and softer breezes.  Our chickens are laying a daily bounty of eggs.  The daffodils are standing tall with their trumpet flowers and I’ve made a note to plant several more bulbs in the autumn.  Yesterday, I heard the lovely melodic song of a blackbird, letting me know that the mating season of this favourite bird is soon to commence.  As I await the true change of the season – not just the day when the sun shines directly on the equator – and its call to action, I will soon spend more time outside rather than inside.  Today isn’t that day.  Perhaps this isn’t that month.  But it’s coming.

 

Atta Boy!

The other day, I collected Sam’s ashes from the vet.  They are in a “spreading tube” inside a box which is now sitting on top of a desk.  At the foot of this desk is a rug where Sam spent many hours sleeping each day.

Two weeks ago while I was away, Roger called to tell me Sam had collapsed at the bottom of the hill and was unable to stand.  His back legs failed and his quality of life rapidly diminished.  We made the difficult decision to put Sam to sleep the following day.

To know Sam was to know that he was a good dog.  He was a Border collie mix with long black fur, except for his little white tuxedo chest.  His eyes were a golden brown and could will you to open the treat jar.  He was a Jedi warrior!  Well behaved, polite to strangers, loyal beyond belief and in his earlier years, an all-around amazing athlete able to jump a five-foot fence rather than being lifted over it.  He could negotiate rocks, water, and other tricky terrain with ease.   Sam ignored the sheep, watched over the chickens and loved his walks.  He also welcomed and protected Millie and her endless supply of puppy energy.

He wasn’t always like this.  Before we rescued him eight years ago, he had a rough life.  He was found on the street and was scheduled to be put to sleep because he wouldn’t let anyone near him.  He had a long scar on the side of his body, and an insecure, cautious approach to meeting other dogs, people and situations.

When we moved to Crockern, Sam grew in confidence.  He loved his walks across the moors, and the open landscape helped him settle.  Just this summer, he took two ribbons in a local dog show.

We are intending to have our own ceremony to release Sam’s ashes.  The when and where are yet to be decided, but certainly on a dry and still day.  I don’t wish to be standing upwind as ashes swirl about on a strong breeze.  Roger and I need to decide whether we release all of him in one location?  Or, will we have several locations over several days?  Twenty years ago, I scattered the ashes of my dog Scratch in the bay at Provincetown.  He loved it there, having spent several summers swimming in those waters.  Even now, I remember my “ceremony” was all over too quickly.

Nothing prepares you for the loss of a pet, even as the eventuality of it creeps upon you with their decline.  This next step of planning how we will release Sam’s ashes is heavy as it will open our grief again.  As I walk past the box on top of the desk, I know that tube does not contain soft ashes as if from a campfire, but instead it holds a plastic bag of coarse sand with shards of bone.  There is nothing romantic nor the least bit comforting in this thought; but, that doesn’t stop me from saying “Atta Boy Sam!” each time I pass.

 

Best in Show

Roger and I don’t have children.  We have dogs.  We have chickens.  We have projects. We have different activities.  We have fun.  Never before have we taken the dogs to a dog show, but when our friend Ann came to visit from Taiwan with her six-year old daughter Luna, the local village dog show seemed a fun way to spend an afternoon.

“Everyone’s a winner!” has got to be the theme.  It’s a village dog show, not Crufts.  It’s a fundraiser, so I’m feeling relaxed about Millie and Sam’s performance.  Still, to up our game, I give them both a little brushing before we head out for the afternoon.

Scanning the village green, we see some friends, a handful of dogs, and the day ahead looks relaxed.  There are several categories, and I start our day by entering Millie in “Best Dog Under 18 Months.”  Millie is friendly when greeting the judge who looks at her teeth, eyes and ears. Millie doesn’t jump up, but she doesn’t stand up either; instead, she snuggles into the judge for a little cuddle.  I feel my heart swell with love for our little dog and think, “Way to go Millie, that’s how to score points with the judge.”  But, when we go to do the required walk around the ring, Millie jumps up on me, tangles my legs and we are nothing less than a disaster.  I console myself: “It’s just a village dog show.”

There are several dog breeds and sizes competing. The people – known as handlers – also vary.  Some of these people hold the leads up straight and do a little trot with their dogs, just like they do at Westminster.  Who knew we were supposed to do that?  I notice a woman providing treats as she moves through the ring, which borders on treasonous cheating if you ask me.  A feeling of competition is seeping into my relaxed approach and I’m questioning our game plan, or lack of one.  Why did we go first?  I should have observed, taken notes, copied a few of the more seasoned competitors.  Should I have spent more time teaching Millie how to walk while attached to the lead?  Why are there suddenly so many dogs in this competition?  Still, Millie is cute and well behaved, so we’re surely in with a chance.

That is, until a butterfly makes itself known.

The judge has now met all the dogs, she looks around at each of the competitors.  Several are sitting up straight, looking directly at the judge.   One handler, adjusts her dog’s front legs and tail.  I’m trusting our honest, down-home approach will prevail and Millie will walk away with one of those ribbons.  Before making her final decision, the judge scans the ring giving each dog one last look.  When the judge considers Millie, she turns her head and looks AWAY to watch the butterfly.  What is she doing, trying to blow her chances?

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Millie distracted by a butterfly.

Evidently yes.  Moments later, the first dog – a handsome and well behaved retriever – is called to receive his award.  Then the next dog, and another until all six places are awarded.  Mille, still watching the butterfly, is blissfully unaware of defeat.

All who meet Millie say she is beautiful and well behaved.  Such unsolicited endorsements have us believing she must be exceptional.  As Millie and I exit the ring with the other losers, I’m convinced this entire village dog show is rigged.  How could so many people who meet Millie be so wrong?  Still, it’s a fundraiser, and part of that word is FUN, so we press on.

Next up, Sam.  I enter him in the “Best Re-homed” category.  He’s clearly going to win something having had an unknown and difficult start before he landed on all four paws with us.  I look around, and there are just two or three rather average looking dogs in the ring.  My competitive nature in full swing, I tell his back story to the judge.  “He was scheduled to be put to sleep when we rescued him…. scar on his side body…took him a while to gain in confidence….”  Lilly well and truly gilded, I’m feeling quietly confident.

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Sam doing his best to be excited.

But horror of horrors, what was a ring of four or five dogs, is now about fifteen!  Where did all these other dogs and their handlers come?  Can you enter the ring once the competition has started?  Isn’t there a cut off?  And what’s with this little dog wearing a sweater to cover up its skin condition from being in the pound?  Where was that three-legged dog hiding?  And the one with the missing eye?  Still, we were in with a fighting chance.

Sadly, not.  Sam didn’t win anything.  We have two dogs who haven’t claimed even 6th place.  Deep breath.  Notes to self:  It’s a fundraiser.  Bigger purpose.  It’s not about the winning, it’s participating that’s important.

Next category: “Best Dog Over 7 Years.”  Since Sam can’t walk well these days, we stay in place and pay another pound coin to enter this round.  No need to repeat anything to the judge as she has just heard it all.  Now gone are those other rescued dogs with harder-luck stories than Sam, replaced by a range of dogs over seven years old.  Unlike Sam, the other competitors easily walk and stand.   At this point, I too am watching a butterfly and resolved to having donated another pound to charity when Sam receives second place.  Second place!

Before I know it, there is someone asking me all sorts of questions about Sam.  What’s going on, am I being interviewed?  No, Sam takes another prize! “Oldest dog in the show.”  Well I’ll be damned, my old boy dog just jumped ahead in the medals table.

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Oldest dog in the show!

Resting on our laurels and crafting a strategy to build on our successes, we sit out a few rounds:  best pedigreed sporting dog, best groomed, and best movement (This is about gait, not poop).  Up comes, “Cutest Eyes” and I enter Millie.  She takes second place!  We’re on a roll now, eh?  She next takes a respectable fifth in “Pedigreed Non-Sporting”.   I don’t even know what this category is about, but who cares, two dogs, four ribbons and I’m feeling proud, proud, proud!

I was wrong about everyone being a winner.   We tasted loss and it wasn’t as sweet as the rosettes we received which will soon find their way into a box.  With or without these ribbons, Roger and I know our dogs are best in show.  And in my hot pursuit to have our dogs reign supreme, we supported a local charity.

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Hey, look at our ribbons!

Teaching Millie to Swim

We don’t get many hot days on Dartmoor, but recently we had one.  Twenty-four degrees, no clouds and little to no breeze.  Sitting in the shade and reading a good book would be an ideal activity; but equally, it is a terrific day for doing some outside projects.  Unless wisely chosen, I risk melting in the heat.  Fortunately, we have a long list of possible projects:  filling potholes, jet-washing loose paint from the outside of the house, gardening, washing windows, mowing the lawn, or pointing the shed.  But a bonfire at high noon with no breeze was my choice.

The pile of rotten and useless old posts, left a few months ago from when Roger finished re-fencing the south side of the property, was calling to me.

I lathered on my sunscreen and covered most of my skin in bug spray.  Millie and I headed out to the lower field and commenced to building a fire.   Sam elected to exercise his old boy rights and snooze on the kitchen floor for the better part of the morning.  Meanwhile, Roger was tending to a leak in one of the pipes under the stairs.  This was not on the day’s to-do list, but when he went to grab a screw driver from his tool bag, it was swimming in water.  Yes, a slow and steady drip from the pipe above had filled the canvas bag below.  Roger’s plans were changed.

But not mine.  In our spot for bonfires, I piled some wood and cardboard and set it alight.  Those old fence posts – rotten and soggy from exposure – went up in flames as if they had been saturated in accelerant.  On went a few more post, and then a few more.  As the fire raged, I sacrificed the picnic table which was beyond repair.  After a few hot and sweaty hours, the pile of wood was nothing more than a circle of hot coals.  And my ankles, where I missed patches with the bug spray, were aflame with bug bites.  The itching was agonizing.  As the heat was growing both with the sun and the bonfire, I could feel the sweat trickle down my back.  Looking around, I found Millie near the stile which leads to our river access.   It was time to cool off and get refreshed.

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West Dart River, Dartmoor

With complete joy, Millie jumps from rock to rock.  She stoops low to the river and bites at the water as it passes.   She wants to jump in, but swimming is not her thing, preferring to paddle no deeper than her belly.  It’s not that she is afraid of the water, it’s more, she’s not comfortable with having her feet lose contact with the bottom.  That slimy, slippery, rocky, river bottom.  More than once, I have stepped too quickly and found a boot full of water.  But, Mille is sure footed and will happily skitter up and down the river on rocks.

While Millie is darting about, biting at the water and gathering her ball as it floats past on the current, I have carefully clambered out to the middle of the river.  The water is cool and refreshing.  Dragon flies skitter past.  They too manage to play in the water, but not swim.

Millie drops her beloved ball, and with a focused look, tells me to throw it.  I give it a high Federa-esc lob and it lands up river stalling in deep water where there is little current.  Millie waits and watches.  If it were bobbing down river, she would surely station herself atop a rock and wait for it to float nearby.  But this is something altogether different.  She must be thinking, What am I to do?  How do I get that ball? It’s not moving.  Surely, it should be moving.  There is no way I’m going to SWIM to it!

I issue encouraging words, but no amount of coaxing seems to get her to release the contact her paws have with these stones.  So, I slip off the rock where I’ve been sitting and begin to dog-paddle toward the ball, “C’mon Millie, you can do it.  This is how we swim.”   She barks with excitement.  Running up and down the reedy shore line, trying to get that ball before I do.  My hands and knees are sliding across the mossy rocks below as the water isn’t that deep.  “See Millie, this is called dog-paddling.  You can do it.”  She barks in response, sizing up her options.  Moved by her competitive nature, Millie takes a tentative step off her underwater perch and takes her first splashy strokes.  Catching the ball in her mouth, she quickly makes it to the other side of the river.  It’s true, dogs know how to swim.  Some, however, swim with grace.  It is safe to say, Millie does not.

On terra firma, Millie shakes the water from her coat and clutches the ball in her mouth. She is not giving it up anytime soon.  And, despite the heat of the day, this is enough wild swimming for this little collie.   The bonfire is burned down.  The leaky pipe is repaired.  Dinner awaits.  Millie has learned how to swim and Sam is taking an early evening stroll about the garden.  Roger is heating up the hot tub, and me, well, I’m sitting on the new bench on Gin and Tonic Hill.  Bliss.

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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