let kids watch beauty and the beast

Adjusting to a new life rhythm

One of the most thought-provoking things I have read in a long time comes from young Sam Gribley of My Side of the Mountain.  Surviving in the Catskill Mountains by hunting and gathering, he muses about how you don’t really notice the weather until you live in it.  Even then, long before this move, before our chickens, before my first real garden, I began thinking how irrelevant the weather has become in modern life.

Some of it is because of technology.  The light bulb has decreased our dependence on the sun, heat and air conditioning has allowed us to regulate our immediate environment despite what nature has in store for us, and the local news has relieved us of the need for learning to read the wind and the clouds.

Some of it is because of our changing economy.  My grandfather was a farmer and to the day he died he stayed up to watch the weather and then went to bed.  An agricultural society depends on the sun and the rain for its daily survival.  We notice droughts when the city imposes water restrictions and we are no longer allowed to water the lawn or wash our cars.  We notice floods when neighborhoods are evacuated.  But for the most part, awareness of the year’s rainfall remains on the periphery of our knowledge, something stored away for small talk in the checkout aisle but rarely personal or meaningful.

The sun itself has lost its significance, for we now schedule our days by the ticking of a clock rather than the rising and setting of the sun.  Surrounded by technology telling us the time, we no longer need to look at the sky to see that it is getting late.

When we moved out here, I knew we were in for many changes.  That the very rhythm of our lives would be altered.  Our work would no longer fall neatly into a planned schedule, looking much the same from day to day, week to week, month to month.  Instead, spring would bring planting and (hopefully) kidding.  Summer would bring weeding and fertilizing and fresh pasture for the animals.  Fall would bring the harvest.  And winter would bring some rest and time for all that we just couldn’t get to earlier in the year.

Now, however, I am aware of the approaching dusk.  I watch the sky as the sun sinks lower on the horizon.  The afternoon turns to early evening, the shadows lengthen and it does not matter what I am doing, it is time to prepare for the coming of night.  Dishes will be left, dinner held, games paused because we are now in a race with the sun.  Before the light changes, before the color of the sky deepens and before the sky is painted with fire, I must catch the cat, bring in the dogs and lock up the chickens.  The coming of night brings not only the close of day, but danger as well.

Coyotes are foremost on my mind, for ours seem bold.  They are a threat to the chickens, the dogs, the cat and even the children.  But we also have bobcats, cougars, foxes and a seemingly endless list of animals that would love to prey on our chickens.  And almost all of them are called out of their sleep by the setting of the sun.

Driving home from Lincoln, I realize I misjudged how long the various errands would take.  I pull into the drive with an odd sense of urgency as I give instructions to get the children and shopping in as quickly as possible.  The last rays of the sun disappear behind the trees as I scoop up the cat on the way back from the chicken coop.  Hunter turns and strains against the leash, looking back across the cornfield toward the treeline that marks the river.  A low growl catches in his throat and I turn to look.  The trees look ominous.  Like a dark hole cut out of a blackening sky.

I quicken my step toward the house.  Hunter comes along, but his ears are erect, his tail held high.  He is on full alert, staring into the enveloping darkness.  I don’t know what he perceives, but I trust his senses and appreciate his presence.

Inside, I turn the lock, release the dog and smile at the children.  We’re home.  We’re safe.  We’re in for the night.

let kids watch beauty and the beast

Late night visitors, or The attack of the coyotes

A little after midnight, both dogs leap at the window, growling furiously.  For a moment, I think Hunter (the lab mix) is going to go right through the glass.  I run to the kitchen to open the door and let them out before even checking to see what they are so upset about.

Wait.  Back up a bit.  It’s Friday evening and I come home to discover the chickens missing.  I look around with the flashlight and see no evidence of predators and start looking around the coop, in bushes and in trees.

Here, chickee chickee.  Here, chickee chickee.

Two appear from under the coop which I quickly catch and lock inside.  Kneeling down with a flashlight, I can see the feet of the other two, but they aren’t budging.

Do you know how many things there are out here that would love chicken for dinner?

Reasoning with them doesn’t work.  Even as I list the predators for them.

Weasels, mink, raccoons, foxes, dogs, coyotes, bobcats, cougars . . . and you know, I’m not so sure that the tracks all over around this coop aren’t bobcat.  You may have taken over her old home, you know.

They coo at my voice, but refuse to move.  I give up on catching them, but not on getting them through the night alive.  So I bring the dogs down and walk them around the coop several times.  The plan is to let the dogs out every time they bark, following with a flashlight.  They’re pretty much allowed out anytime they want, anyway, but now the stakes are a little higher.  We’ve only been here for a week, and all evidence suggests that the wild things that lived here before us have not yet ceded their territory.

Fast forward several hours.  They’ve already been out twice, chasing who knows what.  Maybe just barking for the pure joy of it for all I know, but if there is any chance of them getting to the chickens before something that would actually do them harm, I don’t mind.  Hunter is lunging at the window and I’m grabbing my jacket as my daughter says,

There’s something out there, mom.  I see something like a dog.

The dogs race to the door and push past me as they round the corner and take on the intruder at a full run.  Make that intruders.  Hunter is immediately on the heels of one coyote, chasing him across the road, across a cornfield, across another road and I finally lose him in a line of trees.  Copper is doing his best to keep up as the rest of the pack disperses.

Yes, pack.  A whole pack of coyotes (at least ten by my daughter’s count) had been lounging in my front yard only moments before.  Mouse watched them lope up to the yard, not twenty feet from the window.  Some sat and stared back at her, some sniffed around, some even lay down.  None were in the least concerned about us or the dogs lunging at the window.

Until they were released.

I heard Copper’s trail call every few minutes, each time further off in the distance.  I grew concerned at just how far they were running.  And while Hunter may give a single coyote a bit of a challenge, he is no match for a pack.  Not to mention the little beagle.  When would the coyotes decide they were on their own turf and ready to fight for it?  Once I could no longer hear the barking, my anxiety grew.  These coyotes were bold, unlike the ones I am familiar with from other places we have lived.  If it weren’t for the night time yipping, I’d never have known any were present at all.

But this pack was lounging in my yard, in the open and nowhere near cover.  When my daughter looked at them through the window, they just looked back.

Finally, Hunter comes trotting up our road, tail held high as he keeps pausing and looking behind him.  He is significantly faster than Copper, but he rarely goes far without him.  Copper, however, doesn’t appear.  Hunter trots to the top of the hill, turns and waits.  I haven’t heard Copper’s bugle in some time, but Hunter begins to prance and lowers his head in a play bow.  Out from behind a snow drift comes those flopping little beagle ears and both dogs bound to me, overwhelming me with affection.

They are keyed up, and unharmed.  They bear no evidence of anything but a hard run.  But they are excited.  Copper comes in with an energy that seems to set everything around him abuzz.  For the rest of the night, he alerts to everything, even the sound of the heater kicking on.  He is tracker dog extraordinaire.  After all, that little beagle just took on a pack of coyotes and won.

And the chickens made it through the night.  And I . . . well . . . I awoke with a little greater appreciation for the role of the family dog out here where he has a job to do, as well as for the wild things all around us.  There are all kinds of things I know are out here, passing through our property on their nightly hunts.  I know it even without the tell tale tracks in the snow.  But it is different to know something, or even to see evidence of something, than it is to see it for yourself, to confront it and to drive it back.

I think about them sometimes during the day, the coyotes which contribute to significant livestock losses out here, as well as the cougars which seem almost a thing of myth.  Everyone talks about them, and sightings, though rarely confirmed, occupy more than a few conversations over coffee.  Then one gets hit on I-80 in Gretna and you know.  You know. It isn’t just talk, like a rural version of the urban legend.  Because there is no way mountain lions are strolling along I-80 if they are not experiencing population pressure out here.

Sometimes the hair on the back of my neck goes up in the evening as I lock up the chickens.  It is almost as if I can feel something watching me from just beyond the shadows.  Hunter’s low growl as he presses himself protectively against my leg and watches the hedge on the property line makes me hold my feed bucket a little more like a weapon, but I stop to stare into the darkness.  Because these wild things that lurk in the shadows were as much a part of why I wanted to move out here as the ability to raise the chickens and goats I will have to work so diligently to protect from them.