I’m Rooting for You!

Recently, on one of my walks with our dogs along the creek, I found what I recognized to be a cottonwood sapling.  In the middle of winter, there were obviously no leaves on the small, spindly baby tree, but the buds were unmistakable.  I smiled at the possibility of another beautiful, majestic cottonwood tree that would give shade and shelter to all the creatures that call our farm “home”, but I am also realistic.

It probably won’t survive.

Even if it did, it’s life would be very different from the life of a sapling in town.  A young tree planted in someone’s manicured, well-kept lawn would be routinely fertilized and watered.  It would be watched closely and immediately treated at the first sign of insect damage or disease.  The trunk would be staked to protect it from wind and wrapped to protect the bark from rabbits.  I know this because we did all of those things when we still lived in town.

But since our move to the farm, my perspective has changed.  I am now a firm believer in natural selection.  Nature has a way of eliminating the weakest members in a population so that only the strongest and fittest live to reproduce.  A wild tree that cannot thrive on our farm without human intervention probably shouldn’t be here.

I don’t say that lightly.  Trees on the prairie are a precious commodity and I rejoice at the sight of every strong healthy tree growing along our creek bank.  In addition to cottonwoods, we have creek elm, willows and even a few mulberry trees.  These trees have all planted themselves, and they now nourish themselves from the native soil and water themselves from the creek water.  During dry times they go dormant early and during floods they extend their roots and firmly entrench themselves in solid soil.  They bend during massive storms, but do not break from the wind.

In one of my previous blogs, Bracing Up, I described the loss of two of our trees during a major thunderstorm.  What I didn’t tell you at the time was that both of those trees were redbud trees.  And that we had originally planted six redbud trees when we first built our home on the farm.  And that three of those trees had either died from disease or been lost in earlier storms.  We now have one redbud tree left.  If it dies at some point, I will not mourn its loss.  For whatever reason, redbuds do not thrive at our farm, and we will not replant.

The irony of this is that in the last ten years, I have spent vastly more time nurturing and coddling those six redbuds than I have the double-digit multitude of wild trees growing along our creek. 

This photo appears to be a cluster of cottonwood trees growing together.  In reality, it is one tree.  The original trunk was gnawed off by beaver, so the tree sent up numerous shoots off the stump.  It has a strong root system and the tree is thriving.

This cottonwood tree, on the other hand, appears to be dead.   It lost all its leaves last summer and its bark is peeling.  We’ll give it one more season, but if it doesn’t leaf out, we’ll cut its trunk for firewood.  What killed it?  Disease or insects, I imagine, but I’ll never know for sure.

I see the native trees’ enduring struggles to survive on the prairie as symbolic of the struggles of our ancestors who first braved the hazards of the plains of Kansas.  Not all survived.  Diseases like pneumonia, influenza, tuberculosis and diphtheria killed many and accidents killed others.  One of my own great-grandfathers was trampled by a runaway team of horses.

And like my coddled redbud trees, some should never have been planted here.  Many of the noble English settlers who established the city of Victoria in Ellis County found the Kansas prairie too harsh, and returned to civilization in their native country, taking their lace tablecloths and china teacups with them. 

But those who survived and thrived were all the stronger because of it.  And they produced generation after generation of hardy descendants who still thrive here.

I won’t know for several years whether the tiny cottonwood sapling will survive, but I do know this:  I’ll be rooting for it.

(The March chapter of my third book, The Return to the Family Farm, describes some of my earliest experiences with the wild trees on our farm.)

Next Week:  It’s More Than a Game

What is that smell?

If you read my first blog, Greetings From the Farm, you might remember that I described myself as “hopelessly old-fashioned”.  It should then come as no shock to you that I did not set up this website or blog on my own.  I enlisted the aid of a young, energetic, extremely knowledgeable, college senior focused on electronic marketing.  I didn’t even know there was such a thing as “electronic marketing” until I spoke with her.  Now I do.

She informed me that a typical blog should be able to be read in about 5 – 7 minutes.  This made perfect sense to me.  I figure that’s the average length of time needed to take the average poop.  (Are you going to deny that you take your phone in there?)

I realize some of you may find my poop comment to be indelicate.  That is but one of the differences between someone who lives in town versus the country.  When you live on a farm, poop just naturally becomes a part of your day.  Allow me to explain.

Every morning and every evening, my farm chores include feeding my three horses, two dogs, two cats and two rabbits.  But what goes in, must also come out.  If the animal poop is not dealt with, flies become a serious issue in summer.  Horse hooves can become sore if impacted with manure.  Penned animals can become sick or get intestinal worms.  This is why we take great care to keep our animals’ areas clean.  Clean animals are healthy animals.  And healthy animals are happy animals.

I keep a particularly close eye on my horses’ poop.  If it is too soft, too hard, the wrong color, or if there’s not enough of it, it means a call to the vet.


So, every morning and every evening, I shovel and sweep the stalls, placing the poop on a pile in the corral.  Every week, Danny uses his tractor to scoop up the large pile and spread it on our fields and pastures.  It is magnificent fertilizer.  I also use the dried manure as fertilizer in my vegetable garden.  I feed the horses…they help feed us.

Not so long ago, I was reminded that not everyone is so accustomed to poop during a visit to our farm by my cousin Keith and his family.  They were visiting from Florida where they live in a large city.  Naturally, his kids wanted to see all the animals on our farm, and we began the tour with our horses.  As we stepped into the corral, Keith’s pre-teen daughter crinkled up her face so hard that her eyes disappeared and the tip of her nose almost rested on her forehead.

“What is that smell?!” she exclaimed.

It was, of course, the smell of horse poop.  Now, for those who have never smelled horse poop, I want you to know that I, for one, don’t find the odor the least bit offensive.  I really don’t particularly care for the smell of either dog poop or cat poop, but they are carnivores, you see.  Because a horse is a herbivore, its poop has a much milder aroma.  Depending upon what the horse has feasted on, clover, alfalfa, etc. the scent might actually be described as “sweet”.

My dogs totally agree with me.  Now you need to know that what I am about to describe, I have only witnessed in winter.  When the horses’ poop is frozen solid, my two yellow labs will sniff the various horse nuggets until they each find just the right one.  (“No, not this one.  It’s not ripe yet”.  “Oh, this one has an especially piquant fragrance!”) Then they will delicately loosen the frozen nugget from the rest of the pile with their teeth, carry it out of the corral, where they hold it in their paws and gnaw on it until it is entirely consumed.

I call them “poopsicles”.

For the record, I do not let my dogs lick my face.  (The accompanying photo shows our dogs gnawing on raw beef bones, not poopsicles.)

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The dogs are not the only animals who seek nourishment from the horse poop.  I have seen both meadowlarks and geese scratching and pecking at the dried poop to retrieve undigested oats, corn, and weed seeds.  It is all a natural part of the farm circle of life.

When I was growing up, my parents ran a dairy farm and my mom raised chickens for both meat and eggs.  I will tell you this:  I do not miss cleaning up the poop from either one of those species.  I will buy my milk and eggs, thank you very much.

For those of you interested in history, here is an interesting tidbit from early life on the Kansas prairie.  Newsflash: There are minimal trees on the prairie.  And the railroad depot, through which mined coal from the East Coast was delivered to towns, could be many miles from the area farms.  So, if you didn’t have trees, and coal was too expensive and difficult to purchase, what did you use for heat and fuel?

Dried cow patties.  Every farmer had multiple cows.  My mother (Born in 1915, Died in 2011) recalled that collecting dried “cow chips” was a job for the little ones in the family.  Her mother would give her a basket, and tell her not to come back until it was filled with dried chips.  When completely dried, they burned hot and had very little scent.  You can imagine that a large store would need to be collected before winter set in.  Caution:  Kids, if you’re going to try this at home, be sure to not pick up the cow chip until it is completely and thoroughly dried.

One more farm “poop” story before I let you go for today:

A couple of summers ago, I kept finding this mysterious poop on our porches, sidewalks and driveway daily.  Multiple poops.  I couldn’t figure out to what kind of animal it belonged.  It was too small for a dog or cat, and too big for a rodent.  A small raccoon, perhaps?  I was mystified.  I told Danny that maybe we should set a trap, but I had no idea what type of food to even put in the trap.

After several weeks of this, we happened to be at a cocktail party where I was chatting with a friend who also lived in the country.  She asked me if we were inundated with toads the way they were.  I told her that, yes, we had an abundance of toads that summer as well, but I liked the toads because they kept the bugs out of my herb garden, vegetable garden and flower beds.  In fact, I told her, when I found stray toads, I deliberately caught them and relocated them near my house as bug control.  “But what about the poop?” she asked.

A light bulb went on.

“Google it,” she told me.

The next day I closely examined the mysterious dried poop on our driveway.  It was virtually entirely composed of undigested bug parts.  I compared it to the online photos.  Mystery solved.

You’re going to Google toad poop photos now, aren’t you?  Go ahead.  I’m sure you’ll find it to be just as fascinating as I did.

(Want another fun “poop” story?  Check out “June – Boredom” from my book A Year on the Family Farm. This one is from my childhood.  I simply could not make this stuff up.)

Next week: She’s special, and she knows it.