Spring Tidings

The past few months have been consumed with a lot of travel.  These work demands on my time have taken me away from Crockern and its rhythms.  Meanwhile, Roger, Sam and Millie have held the fort.

Being away does give me a chance to recover from some of our projects.  Pot holes, roof repairs, fencing, ceilings, gardening, etc. all leave me feeling some aches and pains.  A few days away and my sore muscles recover; and I return to see anew the beauty of Crockern.  What may take a week or two to unfold seems to happen overnight.  After a recent two-week trip to the States, I returned to find spring in full force at our little homestead.

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Driving back from the train station, the woodlands, lanes, verges and hedgerows are bursting with wildflowers.  British flora may be modest by international standards, but it is full of pleasure.  Wild garlic, gorse, buttercups, bramble, nettle, red campion, cow parsley, poppy, primrose, daffodils, cornflowers and soon to come, speedwell, teasel and foxgloves.

As we cross the cattle grate and climb up onto the moors, a chequered scene appears with green fields, scrubby land, river valleys and patches of woodland.  Newly born lambs, cows and horses chase after their mothers.  Across the hillside, gorse flashes its golden yellow flowers and fills the air with a heady scent of coconut.  These low shrubs are still prickly and I worry about my eyes when I get too close, but they make such a spectacular accent to the landscape.

Spring at Crockern comes later than other parts of the country, even those parts just 5 miles away.  Still, and despite the colder temperatures, things are in bloom.  Bleeding hearts, hostas, geraniums and comfrey are all erupting in growth and flowers.  The bees are starting to buzz about reminding us all this planting is worth it.  So too, the rabbits are making their tunnels in the flower beds making me shake my fist like Elmer Fudd.  Blasted little buggers!

The other day, Roger flew out the front door only to return with dirt all over his hands.  “I saw a rabbit in the spinach bed; I’ve had to block its tunnel.”  Despite last year’s efforts to protect the vegetable beds, this one needs increased attention.  These rabbits never rest, nor do they seem to stop having sex.  Once again, we are spotting several generations dining on grass in the yard.  Of course, our chickens seem more than happy to share space with them under the rose bush.  If only my camera were to hand to document three chickens having a dust bath while two rabbits are curled up napping just inches away.  I suppose if you’re a rabbit, you can let your guard down when clucky chickens are busy preening nearby.

And the birds are back in town!  While walking Sam and Millie, I hear the call of our cuckoo.  Yes ours.  Each spring I anxiously await the return of the cuckoo, worried that its migratory flight may have met with disaster.  But when I hear its melodic mating song across our valley, I feel a peace descend.  So too, the swallows are making their return.  We have only a few so far, but the rest of the crew should soon be here busily making their nests and raising their young.

Of the many bulbs I planted two years ago, the daffodils and snowdrops made their showing earlier.  I noticed, a few of the bluebells were bravely poking through the ground.  With luck, in a few more years, they will spread and form a visual treat under the trees.  To celebrate spring, Roger and I joined our friends on a circular walk taking in acres of woodland carpeted in native Bluebells.  Oh, how I hope ours will one day look like this!  British bluebells are somewhat endangered from cross-fertilization by the hardy Spanish bluebells which were introduced in many gardens.  But I don’t care.   As I pause to inhale the unique sent of spring growth on the breeze, I wonder if the bluebell issue will come up in Brexit negotiations?

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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.

Crockern Farm

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.

New double-height beds with chicken wire fencing perimeter! P1050396

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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And The Beet Goes On

“I can’t remember such an extended period of wind and rain.” Roger utters as we study our very soggy garden beds.   We are standing in the wind and drizzle taking an inventory of the spring gardening projects.  We have a lot.

For such a mild winter nothing has grown.  Too much rain and a complete lack of sunny days have laid to waste much of our winter vegetable beds.  The remaining hopes — cabbages —were attacked by rabbits, despite our fencing.  In short, our winter garden this year has been a washout.

Looking out upon our vegetable beds, I can’t help but feel weary and careworn.  Procrastination taking hold like a tap-root weed as I anticipate the exhaustion I will feel BEFORE we begin to tackle these jobs.  To keep the rabbits out, yet make access to the raised vegetable beds easier, we are considering building them up another plank level.  Currently the beds are 12 inches high.  If we double that, the additional compost will give us better growing conditions, a little less bending for us, and an easier defence from the rabbits.  That is, the rabbits who don’t burrow into the beds.  We’ve just discovered a bloody big tunnel right in the middle of our artichokes.  Those little bastards!

 

A year ago, I planted nearly 300 bulbs and this past November we planted 100 hedge plants — blackthorn, holly,  dog rose, maple, hawthorn and guelder rose — to create a habitat for wildlife and ultimately create a hedgerow where the fencing is failing.  What is giving us hope and renewed energy toward our garden are the snowdrops and daffodils poking out from under their mulch of fallen leaves.  These brave little harbingers of spring are defying the rains and mud reminding us to just get on with it.   So too, the hedge plants are all showing signs of establishing themselves.

The ever hopeful snowdrops!

The ever hopeful snowdrops!

Beginning their floral displays are the garden plots we re-established this past year.   Lifting rocks into place and creating drainage, we added rich compost and planted bulbs and bedding plants artfully along the perimeter of the house.  When my brother was visiting in September, he helped relocate and separate some plants that had wilted or suffered shock by being moved.  Peter and I looked at them with a strong sense that our intervention had likely killed these voracious plants.  Happily, they are perking up, budding new leaves and sporting a few purple, pink and white flowers as they shake off their sleepy winter state.

I am ready for spring and accept that I have another month or two before we are in the swing of it, but the past several months of endless rain and skies, which on most days look like dirty plastic hastily placed to cover a broken window, are enough.  There are days when the clouds are like low-hanging mist rooms, testing my usually sunny resolve.  Or, there are days when the clouds lift up high and play hide and seek with the reluctant sun, setting out to tease me with hopes of a dry day.  While our winter vegetables didn’t grow, the potholes along our track certainly did and we are facing a much larger job this spring than in past.  Most of the trenches to the side of the track have been restored, and once we have several days of sunshine, we can begin to fill the ever deepening potholes.

The activity of Sparrows, Tits, Robins and Finches at the bird feeders is on the upswing.  And those noisy Jackdaws are starting to make a mess in and around the barn building their broken-twig-messy-nests. The lambing season also heralds the arrival of spring and soon the sounds of bleating lambs calling to their mothers will fill the air.  Slowly, our chickens are beginning to up their egg production and the recent daily appearance of a blackbird perched atop one of our window boxes, which will soon be planted with marigolds, delights us with his melodic mating song.  Yes, we need to get a move on with these projects.

The light is lingering later into the day and further inspection of the garden shows we need to build a new bed for the rhubarb as it suffers in its current location.  The blueberries need a prune.  And when a sunny day rolls around, the greenhouse will get its spring cleaning and the strawberries inside will be replanted.  Our potatoes, beets, lettuces, tomatoes, radishes, carrots and onions will all be ready for planting in April and May.  We carry on with our outside inventory, picking up fallen branches from the trees as we go.  We stop and listen to the birdsong across the valley, and notice small buds appearing on the trees.  The beard of moss and lichen on the trees and rocks sports new little flowers.  And just below where we’ve stopped I spy the beginnings of nettles.  Despite any garden setbacks, there will always be successes. Perhaps in a few weeks there will be enough of these pesky plants to make some soup.

The chickens pecking for worms, bugs, and other snacks. Despite the sunshine, they are electing for a shady feed.

The chickens pecking for worms, bugs, and other snacks. Despite the sunshine, they are electing for a shady feed.

The nobel Sam. Not much of a gardener, but happy to supervise the whole scene.

The noble Sam. Not much of a gardener, but happy to supervise the whole scene.

The Great Outdoors

Magically, recent weather has been on our side. Not always warm, but at least mostly dry which has allowed our spring and summer work to commence.  We may have only recently turned our attention to projects outside, but Mother Nature hit her stride weeks ago.

The leaves on the trees are unfurling, the wildflowers are poking through grass and amongst the stones, the Redstart has resumed his curious habit of tapping at our window, and there are more than a few bees zipping about pollinating flowers. There must have been a dozen on the blueberry bush the other day, which gives me hope that this year we’ll eat more than 3 blueberries a piece for breakfast!

The Cows are watching.

The Cows are watching.

A week ago, Roger and I planted out the vegetable garden: Potatoes, beets, onions, radishes, carrots, lettuces and still more lettuces. In the greenhouse we have cucumbers, tomatoes, strawberries and this year, aubergines. Our Rhubarb, while not exactly huge, has already seen its way into a crumble. And after a three-year wait, we have been delighting in harvesting our asparagus. Nothing beats the taste of asparagus picked moments before eating it. I am filled with memories of being sent to the garden by my Dad to bring back asparagus and the flavour that captured spring. Years of the store bought stuff hadn’t put me off enjoying this seasonal veg, but having it so fresh has certainly made me a food-snob about buying it in a grocery ever again.

The most noticeable seasonal transformation has been among the local bird life. About six weeks ago, one or two Swallows made their way up the valley to take up residence in their summer home at Crockern. Now, the skies are filled with several dozen as they conduct their dive-bombing flight stunts to catch insects on the wing, return to build and tend to their nests, and periodically rest to chirp, chirp, chirp their very happy songs. Their sound is like a recording of dolphins.

The scene at our bird feeders is also back in full swing with a diverse gathering of birds: Nuthatches, Green Finches, Great Spotted Woodpeckers and Siskins are joining the regular crowd of Chaffinches, Great Tits, Blue Tits, Coal Tits, Robins and Jackdaws. I’ll look forward to seeing the Yellow Hammer again, as there wasn’t a single visit last year from this lovely little bird. On the ground, below the hanging feeders, is the nursery of baby birds being fed by their parents. Their downy feathers all puffed up as they twitch in place and open their mouths as wide as they can to receive a perfectly selected seed from their parents.

The sounds of the valley are alive too. Baby lambs call to their mothers, who answer back until both are reunited. The colony of Herons is alive with raucous squawking from their nests in the boughs of the pine trees. Throughout the day, we hear the Cuckoo calling for a mate. The one who has returned this year to our area of Dartmoor has a distinct throat condition. The first “cuckoo” sound is melodic but the next few are off-key and horse, as if rather than spending time exploring his territory for a mate, he’s been down at the pub drinking and smoking for several hours.   Along with the unique utterance of our local Cuckoo is the sharp loud call, much like two stones being tapped together, from the Stone Chats. We can see these pretty little birds flicking their wings while perched on top of gorse bushes. What we can’t see, but definitely hear, are the ratcheting sounds of the Grasshopper Warbler. We suspect there are a few nests among the reeds in the fields below.

In addition to tending to the vegetable garden, we have been repairing stone walls, pulling weeds, moving fallen branches and building new stone walls to re-establish flower beds outside the house. This is an act of determination and strength, peppered with craziness, as these stones are heavy and often partially buried below ground in the same sort of ratio as an iceberg is in the ocean. The walkers past the house take little notice of us exerting our energy toward an immovable object, but we are being observed. In the meadow beyond our house there is now a herd of cattle, and the calves watch us with bemused eyes. So too, the two Dartmoor ponies who have laid claim to this patch of land, observe our madness between bites of fresh spring grass. The most mocking, however, is the Green Woodpecker. His laughing call somehow perfectly timed and delivered moments after we nearly get a stone into place, but not quite, frustrated as it rolls elsewhere.

The Ponies are watching us.

The Ponies are watching us.

Heading into the barn the other morning, the three Jackdaw nests were alive with a chorus of high-pitched sounds. The chicks hatched in recent days and they now announce any movement near or inside the barn, either as a warning or a lively and cheerful, “Hello!” Not wishing to cause stress, I move carefully in the barn as I try to put some order back to it. I was getting a big load of firewood delivered and needed to be ready to stack it so to season it for the fall and winter. The baby birds got used to me being in the barn, but if I got too close to the nests (within 5 feet!) they all started singing out their “Oh no you don’t!” call.

Most days Roger and I are busy planting, weeding, watering, or harvesting the gardens; repairing, building, or moving stone walls; or, clearing branches, building debris, and a recent land subsidence, which we will need to address sooner rather than later. We carry on with all our activities until our bones and muscles ache, taking breaks to walk Sam or have a cup of coffee. By the end of the day, covered with dirt, we put away our tools, clean ourselves up, and prepare dinner. Afterwards, we take a glass of wine and make our way back outside to soak in the hot tub.  We make plans for the next day while the night shift of wildlife clocks-in. On a clear night, one by one, the stars appear in the sky and the bats flash past to feeding on new insect life. No doubt, the foxes and badgers are making their plans for the evening’s hunt and forage, and the tawny owl in the stand of pines across the valley picks up his turn to riff musically.

The Sound of Music

Just a few days ago, the air temperature was crisp and damp and the winds continued to howl a gale. It did not feel at all like the promised turn of the season. While I may be disappointed, the Jackdaws couldn’t care less. They are busy, busy, busy gathering twigs to build their rather untidy nests in every corner of the barn roof or available chimney pot they can find.

I like the Jackdaws with their raucous calls and high-pitched yelps. They are not overly musical, but seem to enjoy making music and conversation as they go about their business.

It is not dissimilar to our own style of music and conversation during projects. Roger walks through a room, singing a random song. About 30 minutes later, I am wondering “Why am I singing this hit from the 1970s?” I maddingly embrace this earworm; carry on with this implanted song in my head, only to have Roger pass by with yet another tune. We will often sing songs relevant to our current circumstances. “Mr. Blue Sky” by ELO is always a favourite when the sun is shining and we are working outside.

The front door of the Jackdaw's nest in the barn (this roof is a future project).

The front door of the Jackdaw’s nest in the barn (this roof is a future project).

Messy nest.

Messy nest.

A Jackdaw getting ready to put in some decorative touches to its nest.

A Jackdaw getting ready to put in some decorative touches to its nest.

Our own renovation project is in its home stretch, moving from a messy Jackdaw’s nest to something we can soon enjoy and reveal. Still, we have a few more things to complete and rather than do them, we’ve embraced yet another distraction: we’ve rescued a piano.

When I moved to the UK, I left my piano in the USA with a friend. Moving it across the ocean was not an option at the time. Her children have taken lessons on it and it continues to be played, so that makes me happy. And yet, I’ve missed not having a piano.

I’m not a great player. I can read music and figure out some challenging musical pieces, but I’ve never been great at memorizing; nor, have I enjoyed performing for others. I’m a Jackdaw and not a Robin when it comes to my musicality. Happy to just make a racket and have a great time.

So, I found a piano.  There was a house clearance and it needed a home, our home perhaps? We went to look it over, struck an agreement with the man getting rid of it and set about making plans for moving this hulking musical instrument. We next secured a moving van and a few friends to help. Five of us – all in our 50’s with dodgy backs, sore shoulders, and any number of conditions that you’d think would have made me hire professionals – showed up and moved the piano.

Taking small steps, periodic lifts and regular pauses, we got the piano out of the house where it had sat comfortably for over fifty years. Making use of its little wheels on the flat, we inched it toward the van. Heave! Ho! And up into the van! Thirty minutes after it was secured in the back of the van, we were then faced with off loading it and getting it into our house.

“It must have a cast iron frame!” Roger offered as explanation of the hard work of everyone. This piano is heavy. It may be an upright, but it only just fitted through our very narrow front porch with a rather tricky tight turn. And, yes, I measured it before hand.  Having done so provided me a margin of confidence, a very tiny margin.

The piano is in place.

The piano is in place.

The piano is now in place. It needs a little TLC, so a piano tuner and restorer has been called. Sitting at the piano, I can’t read the music without my glasses, which is a new development since last I played.   But, the view from the piano stool, down the valley, allows for playing music while watching the birds weave their flight paths over the bright yellow gorse.

Of course, the piano will need to be moved again as the corner I have selected has blown plaster which needs repairing; and, the walls in this part of the house haven’t been painted yet. These projects are on next year’s list.

For now, I can rifle through my piano music and accompany the Jackdaws as we all get about our noisy, chaotic, music making.

I’m just waiting on spring…..and the plumbers

Our collective desire for the arrival of spring is huge. Each day, there are reports on the radio of tales of budding trees or carpets of blooming crocuses at some National Trust property somewhere in the country. And each day, I go outside to look for evidence of spring at Crockern and wonder why so little has happened? All those bulbs I planted. The hours spent stooped over with my hands in the dirt. And yet so far, only a few brave snow drops and a couple of the crocus bulbs are peeking through the grass.

My capacity to accept or tolerate delay can, at times, suffer, but Spring is coming.

My impatience for its arrival is not the only thing having me tapping my toes with restless eagerness. I’m waiting for the plumbers. Will this downstairs project never end? Three years ago we started it all with the replacement of the beams. We had to wait to see if roof repairs would make any difference to the damp before we could do anything else, and that took a year. Since that time, we’ve framed walls, insulated, laid floors, put in a new boiler, built a closet, had stairs installed, and turned our attention to the bathroom. The tiles are all in place, grouted and sealed. The walls painted. The refinished door installed. The pipe work is ready and we are waiting for the fixtures to be installed. Some houses have living rooms, guest rooms, studies, playrooms, but few have a soon-to-be-finished-but-can’t-be-because-of-a-bathtub-a-sink-and-a-toilet-in-the-way-bedroom. Since October, these fixtures have been sitting in our way, slowing progress on this bedroom.

That was about the same time I planted all those bulbs.  Can’t we finish already?

(see also:  https://crockernfarm.wordpress.com/2014/04/08/home-renovations-2/)
 
The soon-to-be-finished-but-can’t-be-because-of-a-bathtub-a-sink-and-a-toilet-in-the-way-bedroom.

The soon-to-be-finished-but-can’t-be-because-of-a-bathtub-a-sink-and-a-toilet-in-the-way-bedroom.

To be fair, the fixtures had to be purchased and sit about in order to lay the plumbing correctly. Precision with location of pipes for radiators and a toilet is important. After that initial rough work was done, it did take us ages to raise the floor, frame out the walls, insulate, rip out the ceiling and insulate some more, plaster the whole thing, and cut and lay the reclaimed slate tiles.

If our project completion is slow, so too is the emergence of spring. Yet, the endless activity at the bird feeders of Sparrows, Tits, Robins, Finches and Jackdaws is a happy sign. In fact, the Jackdaws are back to making a loud racket as they build their nests in the barn. Broken twigs are flung about in search of the right one, for what looks like rather messily thrown together nests.

Despite the cold, wet wind we have blowing this week, spring is in the air. The chill outside is diminishing and my list of gardening chores is growing. I’ve cleaned the greenhouse, planted seeds into trays, and bagged more compost. The annual repair of potholes along the track is in full swing as I recently discovered someone throwing out a load of bricks. As it transpires, bricks are fantastic for filling the larger holes before laying in the road plannings.   Plus, they are free.

P1030403

P1030404

Yet in my impatience with the arrival of spring and the plumbers, I feel reduced to behaving like a teenager. Text after text after text I send, with the odd and infrequent response from the plumber. I usually write something like, “We’re all set, should we look for you tomorrow?” No response. It’s in times like these that I check what I’ve written, worrying that I might have sent something adolescent like:   “Did you get my text? Please answer. Did you? Did you?” Usually, the delay is more because our plumber is a good guy and very busy. He couldn’t come out at all last week due to an emergency of a failed boiler and broken radiators in someone’s house. As it is still chilly outside, that project trumps our new tub being fitted into place.

But spring is near. It’s lambing season and soon those cute little lambs will return with their bleating “Baaaaaaaah!!!” as they attempt to re-unite with their mothers. The light is lingering later into the day and our chickens are laying eggs with greater frequency. The mosses and lichens are showing new little flowers and budding. The trees are starting to show buds, too. And each evening I hear the lovely tune of a blackbird, letting me know their mating season is beginning. But more exciting still, I’ve just got a phone message and the plumbers are on their way!

 

Goodness Gracious Snakes Alive!

Whether it is a shady, treacherous and conniving human or an “ectothermic, amniote vertebrate covered in overlapping scales,” I don’t like coming across snakes in the grass. With the former, they are emotional work but I feel adequately equipped to identify. The latter is trickier. I lack confidence in comfortably telling apart those which are poisonous and those which are not.

I’ve been thinking about snakes lately. Not only is it the time of the year when they are most likely to be spotted, but our electrician friend, who has just finished wiring in the room we are currently renovating, once famously referred to the electrics in our house as “a snake’s wedding.” Without ever hearing this phrase before, I knew at once it was electrician-code-terminology representing a tangled mess. Slowly, we are sorting it out and this next project has enabled us to run wiring in safer ways, dedicate an outlet exclusively for the boiler, add a few outlets rather than running extension cords throughout the room and hide all the wires which previously snaked visibly hither and yon across beams. I like to think we’ve become wedding crashers.

So snakes are a bit on the brain.

Adder image found on Internet

Adder image found on Internet

Growing up in Ohio, I had to be on the look out for Copperheads and Water Moccasins (also known as Cottonmouths), which are the only poisonous water snakes in North America. Both of these share the distinction of being venomous pit vipers, just like a rattlesnake, which means they can detect heat in some pitted place on their faces, located between their little beady snake eyes, enabling them to strike with accuracy the source of the heat, usually their prey.   These snakes were around where I grew up and this sort of knowledge leaves an impression on a young mind and certainly informed my way in the world. When younger I would routinely make loud and deliberate sounds whenever approaching a woodpile or riverbank.   Sunny rocks, dark cool corners around trees in the woods, and piles of leaves all held a potential nest of lethal slithering agents of doom as far as I was concerned. I have not shaken the memory of being thrown into a lake with my friend Betty only to discover hanging above us in the tree branches were hundreds of newly hatched snakes. Never before have two women flown out of water faster!

So, imagine my joy and new lease on life when moving to England. These green and pleasant lands are a place where we have just one native poisonous snake, the Adder. Yes, it is poisonous, but it hardly packs the same punch as a Black Mamba. Roger and I saw one of these while in South Africa and I remained convinced it would find its way into our car even though we had driven off in the opposite direction. Fear and a vivid imagination can be powerful forces.

Inexplicably, I am determined to spot an Adder on Dartmoor. With the sun shining and too many projects beckoning, I decide to set out in search of an Adder. For some, this might be a favourite spring pastime, akin to noting the opening of tree leaves as a seasonal marker. For me, it feels more like a test of courage. Confronting childhood fears of snakes.

Knowledge is power and so bearing in mind a few essential facts hopefully will help off-set my low grade dread about this adventure. Firstly, while Adders are the only venomous snake native to Britain, they are not aggressive. They typically use their venom only as a defense if they are caught (I won’t be doing that) or stepped upon (I really hope to not be doing that!). Adders are also notoriously difficult to find, being quick to hide when they become aware of something new (me) in their environment. Most importantly, no one has died from an Adder bite in Britain for over twenty years! The worst affects are nausea and drowsiness, not dissimilar from being over-served some red wine during an evening out with friends.

Armed with these simple facts and wearing sturdy boots, I make my way to Wistman’s Wood, just a short hike away from our home.   Legend has it that Wistman’s Wood is home to a great many spooky and scary things, including nests of Adders who are said to slither in and among the mossy rocks. There could be truth to this bit of lore as Dartmoor is a popular place for Adders. They tend to like areas of rough, open countryside with a little bit of woodland, making this an ideal destination.

No matter how much I’d like to see an Adder, I must first learn to suppress the montage of scary-snake-movie images (Snakes on a Plane; Indiana Jones; or Anaconda to name a few) and instead try to imagine myself an early traveler to these Woods, taking a break on a stone to feel the sunshine upon my face while listening to a cuckoo calling in the distance. I must remind myself, if I were such a person, I would feel thrilled to see an Adder basking in the sun. On this walk, I will take my time to pause, enjoying the play of light, the sounds of the birds, the breeze upon my skin, and the smell of an impending afternoon rain shower, wondering whether I will discover something new. Is this outing really about seeing an Adder? Perhaps. Then again, it simply may be about staying open to new possibilities. Walking this familiar path reminds me the real snake in the grass is fear, which roots all of us in familiar places, preventing the unanticipated discovery of something new.

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