Fred and Ethel are Back

A lot of people call Kansas “fly-over” country.  That is, it’s only good for flying over as you pass from one coast to the other.  I’m okay with that.  Our slower-paced, simple, quiet lifestyle does not suit many big-city dwellers just as their frenetic lifestyle does not suit me.  But variety is the spice of life, is it not?

“Fly-over” country has a different meaning for me.  Every spring and every fall, thousands of birds migrate over our farm.  Canada geese, snow geese, sandhill cranes, and several species of ducks pass over our farm on their way to their breeding grounds.  Often, they stop and spend the night, or even several days.  They feed on the short, green blades of winter wheat in our field.  They search for early-hatching bugs in our pasture.  They sleep on our pond.

One recent morning, I awoke to several hundred Canada geese sleepily floating on our pond.  They became agitated and began honking noisily as Russell and Fern exited our enclosed porch and walked across our farmyard.

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When our dogs were still pups, they learned very quickly that they got scolded if they chased the migrating geese.  So, on that morning, like all other mornings, the dogs sat quietly and watched the geese, but did not attempt to chase them off.

Later, after completing my morning chores, I used our Ranger, an all-purpose utility vehicle, to fill the various wild animal feeders that I have scattered around our farm.  One of those feeders is very near the pond.  I knew the geese would take off as I approached the pond with the Ranger, and I was right.

It was a sight to behold.  After a cacophony of raucous warning honks, the geese lifted off the pond in unison.  The flapping of those mighty wings overhead so greatly disturbed the air, that it sounded as the whirring blades of a hovering helicopter.

They all took flight.  Except for two.  I smiled.  Fred and Ethel were back!

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Canada geese typically mate for life and can live up to twenty-five years in the wild.  They often return to the same breeding grounds year after year.  Fred and Ethel have raised their babies on our land for almost a decade now.  When the rest of the geese noisily took off in fear, Fred and Ethel remained, calmly and quietly swimming on our pond.  They knew me, they knew the dogs, they knew the Ranger.

Often, the dogs will jump into our pond to cool off (they’re Labs, remember?), swim around a bit mere yards from Fred and Ethel, and each species will pretty much ignore the other.

I refuse to explain where the names Fred and Ethel came from.  Many of you, I am sure, will recognize the monikers immediately and smile at the memory.  For those of you who don’t, well, any explanation simply would not do them justice anyway.  You just had to be there.

When I see Fred alone, or Ethel alone, it’s very difficult for me to tell one from the other.  Their markings and coloring are identical.  When I do start seeing one without the other, I know the eggs have been laid, and one of them is watching the nest.

When together, Fred is obviously larger than Ethel.  And when they are all together with their babies as a family unit, their behaviors are different too.  The goslings tend to cluster around Ethel, mimicking her, feeding where she feeds.  Meanwhile, Fred will stand alert a slight distance away.  Head held high, he spends his time surveying their surroundings.

The nurturing, instructing mother and the vigilant, protective father, together with their brood.  Isn’t that how we would like to picture our own families?

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We can learn a lot from Fred and Ethel.

(I share a touching Canada goose story in the February chapter of my third book The Return to the Family Farm.)

Next week:  Ouch!

 

It Was Worth Getting Up For

A while back, Danny and I were preparing to leave for Rapid City, South Dakota.  It was not a vacation, and we weren’t going to take in all the tourist sites, although Mount Rushmore, the Badlands, and Wall Drug are all worth the trip.  No, we were headed to see our youngest son, his wife and our two youngest grandchildren, who reside in Rapid City.  Sometimes we fly, but this time we had decided to make the 9+ hour journey by car.

Although our family visit was everything we had hoped it would be, that’s not what this blog is about.  Instead, I want to tell you about the morning we left our farm.

It was still dark when I got out of bed.  With the long trip ahead of us, we had planned for an early departure, so I rose promptly at the sound of the alarm and went to the kitchen for a cup of coffee.  (I call my stiff, early morning walk “the coffee shuffle”)

The eastern horizon was barely beginning to lighten, but when I turned on the porch light I could see that it was foggy.  I turned on our weather radio to listen to the forecast while I was making the bed and getting dressed.  Every farmer has a weather radio.  It would be absolutely foolhardy in tornado alley to not have one.  Cities have their sirens, but out on the farm we rely on our weather radio, our instinct, and our common sense.IMG_6486.JPG

Anyway, the fog was expected to burn off quickly, so it would not be a travel hazard.  What it was, however, was beautiful.

When I left the house for my morning chores, the sun had still not risen above the horizon, but I was able to walk to the barn without artificial lighting.  The farm had an ethereal, surreal quality about it.  There was not a stitch of wind, and the fog captured and absorbed each sound wave so that every noise seemed close and magnified.  I became aware of the crunch of my boots on the gravel path as I walked to the barn.  I heard the trill of a meadowlark, the cackle of a pheasant, and the honking of a goose on the pond.  I knew all of these birds were far from me, yet they sounded as if they were right beside me as I strode to the barn.

I stopped for a moment and looked around.  Through the fog, I could faintly make out the fuzzy headlights of one lone truck about a half mile away – an early morning commuter or oil-field pumper on his rounds.

My dogs were trotting beside me, but when I got close to the barn, I saw that the horses were not in the corral.  They typically spend the night in the pasture, and were not yet expecting me at the barn.  My arrival at the barn was about an hour earlier than my typical routine.

When I entered the barn, I immediately turned on the exterior barn lights.  I figured that the horses would see the light and come to the barn.

I fed the dogs and cats, and the horses still hadn’t come to the barn.  So, I stood in the corral and called their names.  With no wind, I knew they could hear me call, even in the farthest corners of the pasture.  I called and I waited.  Then I heard it.  The pounding of hooves on the pasture ground, and I knew that BJ would be first.  A horse in full gallop, mane and tail flying, is always poetry in motion, but the vision of him as he burst through the early morning mist literally took my breath away.

It was definitely worth getting up for.

BB followed next, then Zip, but they both approached at a much slower pace than the younger, fitter BJ.  Even when the pasture is lush with green grass, I still call my horses in twice daily to check them for injury, illness, etc.  As I ran my hand across them that morning, I felt the dampness on their bodies, and I knew they had been lying down when I had called.  Horses periodically doze while standing up, but they still need to get off of their feet for about four hours per day.

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On my walk back to the house after my completed chores, I noticed a yellow-headed blackbird sitting on the ground near the corral fence.  I hadn’t seen one of them in years!  As if the fog hadn’t been enough of an early-morning gift, I had just received another!  I hoped that meant that the blackbird had returned, would stay awhile, and would bring some friends.

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When we leave the farm for extended periods, as we planned to that day, my adult nephew feeds and cares for our animals.  He lives only a few miles from our farm, and he checks on them at least twice daily.  I know how lucky I am to have someone I trust care for our farm when we are gone.

The drive away from our farm that morning was bittersweet.  I was so anxious to see our children and grandchildren again, but I felt just a twinge of sadness at leaving the farm.  And I was reminded of my father.

Years ago, shortly after my parents had retired from dairy farming, Danny and my dad were sitting on the farmhouse porch one beautiful summer evening.  Danny asked my dad if he planned to now, finally do some traveling.  Dairy cows need to be milked every twelve hours, rain or shine, winter or summer.  There are no vacations.  And finding someone to take over the milking can be harder than just staying home and doing it yourself.  My parents left the farm only a handful of times in their thirty years of milking.

But when Danny asked my dad that question, Daddy raised his arms and opened them wide as he slowly swept them across the horizon.  He said to Danny, “Why would I ever want to leave this?”

Indeed.

(My favorite story of my dad is in the June chapter of my second book Another Year on the Family Farm.)

Next week:  Fred and Ethel are back