I believe the nicest and sweetest days
are not those on which anything very splendid
or wonderful or exciting happens
but just those that bring simple little pleasures,
following one another softly,
like pearls slipping off a string.
~L.M. Montgomery from Anne of Avonlea
Pearl by pearl, the simple pleasures slip away so softly in these precious few days of family fullness and warmth.
It is almost too much to bear knowing these pearls can never be strung together again in quite the same way, but I rush to gather them up together in the deep pocket of my memory for safe-keeping.
And then I remember they will always be there, ready to be touched and treasured when I need them, each one more splendid and wonderful and exciting than I would ever have imagined at the time.
Here is a new light on the intricate texture of things in the world…: the way we the living are nibbled and nibbling — not held aloft on a cloud in the air but bumbling pitted and scarred and broken through a frayed and beautiful land.
~Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
The weather is getting brisker so the outdoor critters, some invited, some not, are starting to move inside. The cats scoot between our legs as we open the front door, heading straight for the fireplace to bask in the warmth rather than a cold wind. The corgis come in from the yard for a nightly snack and chew bone, and stretch out on the rug, acting every bit like pieces of furry furniture. And today there was another mouse in the trap under the sink. I almost thought we were mouse-free with three weeks of none sighted and none trapped, but there he was waiting for me when I got home from work, well fed and quite dead. He became an opportune meal for a cat too lazy to go get himself a living breathing mouse.
From nibbling to nibbled. It is a tough world, inside and out.
Our most numerous and ambitious visitors from outside are the spiders, appearing miraculously crawling futilely up the sides in the bathtub, or scurrying across the kitchen floor, or webbing themselves into a corner of the ceiling with little hope of catching anything but a stray house moth or two this time of year. Arachnids are certainly determined yet stationary predators, rebuilding their sticky traps as needed to ensure their victims won’t rip away, thereby destroying the web.
I don’t really mind sharing living quarters with another of God’s creatures, but I do prefer the ones that are officially invited into our space and not surprise guests. The rest are interlopers that I tolerate with grudging admiration for their instinctive ingenuity. I admit I’m much too inept and bumbling to find my way into someone else’s abode through a barely perceptible crack, and I’m certainly incapable of weaving the intricate beauty of a symmetrical web placed just so in a high corner.
After all, I am just another creature in the same boat. There is something quite humbling about being actually invited into this frayed and beautiful, this complex and broken world, “pitted and scarred” as I am. I’m grateful I’ve so far escaped capture in the various insidious traps of life, not just the spring-loaded kind and the sticky filament kind.
So it is okay that I’m settled in, cozy in front of the fireplace, just a piece of the furniture. Just so long as I don’t startle anyone or nibble too much of what I shouldn’t, I just might be invited to stay awhile.
On Halloween day in 1985, I packed up my clothes, a roll up mattress, grabbed one lonely pumpkin from our small garden, locked our rental house door for the last time, climbed in my car and headed north out of Seattle. I don’t recall looking back in the rear view mirror at the skyline after nine years living in the city. My husband had moved to Whatcom County two months earlier to start his new job. I had stayed behind to wrap up my Group Health family practice in the Rainier Valley of Seattle. I was leaving the city for a new rural home and an uncertain professional future.
I knew two things for sure: I was finally several months pregnant after a miscarriage and two years of infertility, so our family was on its way, and we were going to actually live in our own house, not just a rental, complete with a few acres and a barn. A real (sort of) farm. Since no farm can be complete without animals, I stopped at the first pet store I drove past and found two tortoise shell calico kitten sisters peering up at me, just waiting for new adventures in farmland. Their box was packed into the one spot left beside me in my little Mazda. With that simple commitment to raise and nurture those kittens, life seemed very complete.
I will never forget the freedom I felt on that drive north. The highway seemed more open, the fall colors more vibrant, the wind more brisk, our baby happily kicking my belly, the kittens plaintively mewing from their box. There seemed to be so much potential even though I had just left behind the greatest job that could be found in any urban setting: the ideal family practice with a delightfully diverse patient population of African Americans, Cambodians, Laotians, Vietnamese, Muslims and Orthodox Jews. I would never know so much variety of background and perspective again and if I could have packed them all into the Mazda and driven them north with me, I would have.
We started our farm with those kittens dubbed Nutmeg and Oregano, soon adding an ethnic diversity of farm animals: Belgian Tervuren dog Tango, Haflinger horse Greta, Toggenburg goats Tamsen and her kids, a few Toulouse geese, Araucana chickens, Fiona the Scottish Highland cow, then another Haflinger Hans and another, Tamara. I worked as a fill in locums doctor in four different clinics before our first baby, Nate, was born. Again, we had new commitments and life felt complete– but not for long, as we soon added little brother Ben and seven years later, sister Lea. Then it really was complete. Or so I thought.
Thirty years later our children have long ago grown and gone, off to their own adventures beyond the farm. Our sons are married to wonderful women, our daughter is finishing her student teaching and starting the job hunt. Each child moved to a different big city spread out in three different time zones from us. A few cats, two Cardigan Corgi dogs, and a hand full of ponies remain at the farm with us. We are now both gray and move a bit more slowly, enjoy our naps and the quiet of the nights and weekends. Our second larger farm is more than we can realistically manage by ourselves in our spare time. My work has evolved from four small jobs to two decades of two part time jobs to one more than full time job that fits me like a well worn sweater 24 hours a day.
My husband is talking retirement in a little over two years. I’m not so sure for myself. I have never not worked and don’t know how I can stop when the need in health care is greater than ever.
The freedom I felt that rainy Halloween day three decades ago, as Seattle disappeared in the rear view mirror, meant I no longer sat captive in freeway rush hour bumper to bumper traffic jams. I celebrate my daily commute through farm fields, watching eagles fly, and new calves licked by their mamas. I am part of a community in a way I never could manage in the city, stopping to visit with friends at the grocery store, playing piano and teaching at church and serving on various community boards. Our home sits in the midst of woods and corn fields, with deer strolling through the fields at dawn, coyotes howling at night, Canadian geese and trumpeter swans calling from overhead and salmon becoming more prolific every year in nearby streams. The snowy Cascades greet us in the morning and the sunset over Puget Sound bids us good night.
It all started October 31, 1985 with two orange and black kittens and a pumpkin sitting beside me in a little Mazda, my husband waiting for my homecoming 100 miles north. Now, thirty years and three grown children later, we celebrate this Halloween transition anniversary together, still pregnant with the possibility that life is never truly complete when there is always a new day just around the corner.
Thanks to changes in laws mandating reasonable accommodation of mental illness disabilities, we are seeing a boom in requests from our patients for documentation to keep emotional support animals with them in on and off campus housing, classes, public transportation and other public places. Patients desire an animal support to lean on through their stress. Within the past year, the population of dogs has exploded on the University campus where I serve as medical director — dogs leashed and (usually) obediently following their student, faculty and staff owners to classes, meals, and back home to the dorm. As a relatively outdoorsy, green and tolerant northwest University campus, the presence of animals on campus has yet to seem like a big deal, but as the numbers inevitably increase due to 25% of the college student population nationwide currently carrying a mental health diagnosis, it soon will be a big deal as individuals insist on exercising their civil rights along with their dogs.
And it isn’t always dogs. There are cats, along with the occasional pocketed rat, hamster, guinea pig, flying squirrel, and ferret not to mention emotional support pot bellied pigs, tarantulas, ducks and geese. And at least one snake.
Yes, a snake.
As a physician farmer concerned with stewardship of the patients I treat and the land and animals I care for, I’m emotionally caught and ethically bound in this new trend. The law compels clinicians to write the requested documentation to avoid accusations of potential discrimination, yet I’m more concerned for the rights of the animals themselves. I’ve loved, owned and cared for animals most of my sixty years and certainly missed my pets during the thirteen years I was in college, medical school, residency and doing inner city work (my tropical fish and goldfish notwithstanding). I neither had the time, the money, the space nor the inclination to keep an animal on a schedule and in an environment that I myself could barely tolerate, as stressed as I was. That is not stopping the distressed college student of today from demanding they be able to keep their animals with them in their stress-mess.
As a clinician, I’d much prefer writing fewer pharmaceutical prescriptions and help individuals find non-medicinal ways to address their distress. I’d like to see my patients develop coping skills to deal with the trouble that comes their way without falling apart, and the resilience to pick themselves up when they have been knocked down and feel broken. I’d like to see them develop the inner strength that comes with maturity and experience and knowing that “this too will pass.” I’d like individuals to see themselves as part of a diverse community and not a lone ranger of one, understanding that their actions have a ripple effect on those living, working, eating, riding and studying around them. Perhaps corporate work places, schools and universities should host a collaborative animal center with rotating dogs and cats from the local animal shelter, so those who wish to may have time with animals on their breaks without impacting others who aren’t animal fans, or with potentially life threatening animal dander allergies.
I didn’t go through medical training to write a prescription for a living breathing creature perceived by the law as a “treatment” rather than a profound responsibility that owners must take on for the lifetime of the animal. The animal is not disposable like a bottle of pills (or a human therapist) when no longer needed and needs a commitment from its owner beyond a time of high personal stress.
Pardon me now while I go take care of my dogs, my cats, and my horses and yes, my goldfish. They lean on me.
I’m still groggy every morning when I step out my front door onto the porch to make my way down a gravel driveway to get the newspaper. More often than not, it is still quite dark out at 5:15 AM. More often than not, my slippered foot lands on something a little crunchy and a little squishy and a lot icky on the welcome mat in front of my door.
The front porch cat, as opposed to the back porch cat, the garden shed cat, the hay barn cat, the horse barn cat and the 3 stray cats, predator that he is, leaves behind certain remnants of his prey’s….uh, body parts. Mousey body parts or birdie body parts. I assume, from the consistency of this little carnivore compost pile, these are unappealing to the kitty, so become the “leavings”, so to speak, of the kill. Typically, it is a little mouse head, complete with little beady eyes, or a little bird head, complete with little beak, and something that looks suspiciously green and bulbous, like a gall bladder. I don’t think heads or gall bladders are on my preferred delicacy list either. And they are certainly not on my list of things I like to wear on the bottom of my slipper. Yet I do and I have.
I’m perplexed by this habit cats have of leaving behind the stuff they don’t want on the welcome mat, even the occasional whole shrew or field mouse, seemingly untouched by claw or incisor, but yet dead as a doornail on the doormat. Some cat owners naively think their cats are presenting them with “gifts” –kind of a sacrificial offering to the human god that feeds them. Nonsense. This is the universal trash heap for cats and a testimony to their utter disdain for humans. Leave for the human the unappetizing and truly grotesque…
So humanity is not alone of earth’s creatures to create garbage heaps of unwanted stuff. Not only cats, but barn owls are incredibly efficient at tossing back what they don’t want out of their furry meals. Our old hay barn is literally peppered with pellets, popular with high school biology classes and my grand-nephews for dissection instruction. These dried up brown fuzzy poop shaped objects are regurgitated by the owl after sitting in one of its two stomachs for a number of hours. Bird barf. It’s fairly interesting stuff, which is why these pellets (which we recycle by donating by the dozens to local schools) are great teaching material. It is possible to practically reconstruct a mouse or bird skeleton from a pellet, or perhaps even both on a night when the hunting was good. There is fur and there are feathers. Whatever isn’t easily digestible doesn’t have much purpose to the owl, so up it comes again and becomes so much detritus on the floor and rafters of our barn. Owl litter. There should be a law.
Then there is the rather efficient Haflinger horse eating machine which leaves no calorie unabsorbed, which vacuums up anything remotely edible within reasonable reach, even if reasonable means contortions under a gate or fence with half of the body locked under the bottom rung, and the neck stretched 6 feet sideways to grab that one blade of grass still standing. The reason why Haflingers don’t eventually explode from their intake is that Haflinger poop rivals elephant poop pound for pound per day, so there must be a considerable amount ingested that is indigestible and passed on, so to speak–like part of a tail wrap, and that halter that went missing… you know, like those black holes in outer space–that’s what a Haflinger represents on earth.
This is quite different from the recycled “cud” of the typical herbivore cow who regurgitates big green gobs of grass/hay/silage to chew it again in a state of (udder) contentment and pleasure. If humans could figure out how to recycle a good meal for another good chew or two, the obesity rate would surely drop precipitously. So would attendance at most happy hours. But then, how many skinny cows have I seen? Probably as many as purple cows. I never hope to see one, but I’d rather see than be one.
In my daily walk through life, I have my share of things I unceremoniously dump that I don’t want, don’t need, can’t use, or abandon when I only want the palatable so the rest can rot. Today is Earth Day, and I feel properly shamed and guilty for my contribution to landfills, despite my avid recycling efforts for the past 40 years. Nonetheless, I am in good company with my fellow carnivores and omnivores who daily leave behind what they don’t want or need.
I now need to figure out that herbivore cud thing. I can go green and just might save on the grocery bill.
(originally published in Country Magazine in 2007)
Chores at our farm are rarely routine since our batch of four male kittens were born 6 months ago. They were delivered unceremoniously in the corner of one of the horse stalls by their young mother whose spontaneous adoption we accepted a mere four weeks before, not realizing we were accepting five kitties, not just one.
They were born under a Haflinger’s nose, and amazingly survived the ordeal and managed to stay safe until the next day when we came in to clean and discovered them nicely warmed near a nice fresh pile of poop. What a birthing spot this mama had chosen. Thankfully Haflingers are tolerant about sharing their space as long as you don’t ask for a share of their food too…
We moved them and mama to a safer spot in the barn, away from big Haflinger feet, and they thrived, getting more adventuresome by the week, until they are now in full adolescent glory, mock fighting with each other, scrambling up and down the hay bales, using the shavings as their personal litter box, doing rodent patrol, and most of all, strolling along the shelves that line the stalls, breathing in the Haflinger smell, and rubbing their fur up against Haflinger noses through the wire. They are best of friends with these ponies in the light of day, as after all they were born right in a Haflinger bed.
But at night it’s another story. Each evening as I come out to do chores after returning home from work, it is pitch dark and the Haflingers, out in their winter paddocks, must walk with me one by one back to their box stalls for the night. Only this is now far more of an adventure thanks to four cats who glory in stealth attacks in the dark, like mountain lions in the shadows, waiting for their prey to pass by.
These rascals are two gray tabbies, one black and one gray, all four perfectly suited to be camouflaged in the northwest dim misty fall evenings along a barely lit pathway between paddocks and barn. They flatten themselves tight on the ground, just inches from where our feet will pass, and suddenly, they spring into the air as we approach, just looking for a reaction from either the horse or myself. It never fails to unnerve me, as I’m always anticipating and fearing the horse’s response to a surprise cat attack. Interestingly, the Haflingers, used to kitten antics all night long in the barn, are completely bored by the whole show, but when the tension from me as I tighten on the lead rope comes through to them, their head goes up and they sense there must be something to fear. Then the dancing on the lead rope begins, only because I’m the one with the fear transmitted like an electric current to the Haflinger. We do this four times along the path to the barn as four kittens lay in wait, one after another, just to torment me. By the end of bringing in eight horses, I’m done in by my own case of nerves.
You’d think I’d learn to stop fearing, and start laughing at these pranksters. They are hilarious in their hiding places, their attempts to “guard” the barn door from intruders, their occasional miscalculations that land them right in front of a hoof about to hit the ground. Why I haven’t had at least one squished kitten by now is beyond my comprehension. Yet they survive to torment me and delight me yet another night. I cuddle them after the horses are all put away, flopping them on their backs in my arms, and tickling their tummies and scolding them for their contribution to my increasing gray hair.
I’m a slow learner. These are like so many of my little daily fears, which seem to hide, blended in to the surroundings of my daily life, ready to spring at me without warning, looking like much bigger scarier things than they really are. I’m a highly skilled catastrophizer in the best of circumstances, and if I have a kitten sized worry, it becomes a mountain lion sized melodrama in no time. Only because I allow it to become so.
Stepping back, taking a deep breath, if I learn to laugh at the small stuff, then it won’t become a “cat”astrophe, now will it? If I can grab those fears, turn them over on their back and tickle their tummies until they purr, then I’m the one enjoying a good time.
I’ll try that the next time I feel that old familiar sensation of “what if?” making my muscles tense and my step quicken. I just might tolerate that walk in the dark a little better, whether it is the scary plane flight, the worry over a loved one’s health, the state of the economy, where the next terrorist will strike, or the uncertainty of what tomorrow might bring.
I’ll know that behind that mountain lion is a soft loving purring fur ball, granting me relief from the mundane, for which I’m extremely grateful. Life is always an adventure, even if it is just a stroll down a barn lane in the dark wondering what might come at me next on the path.
Cally, our adopted calico cat from close friends who moved across the country, was quite elderly and fading fast. Winter is always a tough time for barn cats, even with snug shelter, plentiful food and water. We had lost our 16+ year old tuxedo kitty just a couple months previously, and Cally, not much younger, would not last much longer. She got up to eat and potty, and still licked her front paws clean, but couldn’t manage much else. Her frame was thin and frail, her coat dull and matted in places, she’d been deaf for some time and her eyes rheumy. She spent her days and nights in a nest of hay on the floor of our horse barn, watching the comings and goings of horse hooves and people rolling by with wheelbarrows full of manure. I brought her a little rug to give her a bit more cushion and protection from drafts, and I was not surprised to find her permanently curled up there in the morning. Her time had come.
When Cally first arrived as a youngster, she strolled onto our farm and decreed it satisfactory. She moved right in, immediately at home with the cows, horses, chickens, our aging dog Tango (who loved cats) and our other cats. In no time, she became the undisputed leader, with great nobility and elegance. There was no one questioning her authority.
We knew Cally was unusual from the start. Tango initially approached her somewhat warily, given the reaction Tango elicited from our other cats (typically a hair raising hiss, scratch and spit). Instead, Cally marched right up, rubbed noses with Tango, and they became fast friends, cuddling together on our front porch whenever it was time to take a nap. They were best pals. Tango surely loved anyone who would snuggle up to her belly and keep her warm and Cally was the perfect belly warmer (as Garrison Keillor says, “a heater cat”).
Our free range Araucana rooster seriously questioned this dog/cat relationship. He was a bit indignant about a front porch communal naptime and would strut up the sidewalk, walk up and down the porch and perch on the railing, muttering to himself about how improper it was, and at times getting quite loud and insistent about it. They completely ignored him, which obviously bugged him, proud and haughty bird that he was.
One fall morning, as I opened the front door to go down the driveway to get the newspaper in the pre-dawn mist, I was astonished to see not just a cat and dog snuggled together on the porch mat, but the rooster as well, tucked up next to Tango’s tail. As usual, Tango and Cally didn’t move a muscle when I appeared, as was their habit–I always had to step over them to get to where I needed to go. The rooster, however, was very startled to see me, almost embarrassed. He stood up quickly, flapped his wings a few times, and swaggered off crowing, just to prove he hadn’t compromised his cock-sure raison d’etre.
No, I didn’t have my camera with me and I never found them all together ever again. You, dear reader, will have to just take it on faith.
After Tango died, Cally rebounded by taking on the training of our new corgi pup and making sure he understood her regal authority in all things, and demanding, in her silent way, his respect and servitude. He would happily chase other cats, but never Cally. They would touch noses, she would rub against his fur, and tickle his chin with her tail and all he could think to do was smile and wag at her.
So I figure a dog, a cat and a rooster sleeping together was our little farm’s version of the lion and lamb lying down together, diplomacy of the purest kind, the most diverse becoming one. The peaceable kingdom was right outside our front door, a harbinger of what is promised someday for the rest of us. Despite claws, sharp teeth, and talons, it will be possible to snuggle together in harmony and mutual need for warmth and comfort.
Our special Cally made it happen on earth with her special statesmanship. I suspect she’s met up with Tango, and possibly one rooster with attitude, for a nice nap together on the other side.