Fall Harvest

Our milo crop has been harvested. 

While I feel very blessed, thanks to the abundant moisture we had this past summer, for the great crop we brought into the bin, I also feel a little sad saying goodbye to the beautiful fall color.

Milo is a grain sorghum.  It grows well in Kansas where there is typically less moisture than in the corn belt.  In the United States it’s used mostly as cattle feed, but it is also palatable for humans, and used for that purpose in other countries.  Depending on the hybrid, it grows two to five feet tall, with large, heavy heads filled with grain.  It’s harvested using a combine with the same header as used for wheat.

Planted in spring and harvested in fall, the milo hybrids are designed to grow on shorter, thicker stalks that make the crop less susceptible to the strong winds that typically accompany a summer thunderstorm.  But in virtually every field you will find a rebel stalk – some throwback to an earlier generation – that refuses to conform, and instead, still reaches for the sky.

Unlike wheat harvest, I have no cherished childhood memories of milo harvest.  That could be because school was in session during milo harvest, but I think it is more likely that my father simply didn’t plant milo.  Because he ran a dairy, he planted forage sorghum instead of grain sorghum.  This type of sorghum can be shocked and stored like hay, or made into silage.  It is finely chopped, then pressed into a pit and covered by plastic.  Nature converts it into a succulent feed through the process of anaerobic bacterial fermentation. 

I do have memories of our silage pit, but I’m not sure that I consider them “cherished”.  I remember how steam would rise off the pit on a cold, winter day.   I have memories of my dad using a pitchfork to toss the silage to our dairy cows in winter.  And I remember the sickly, sweet smell of the fermented sorghum as the dairy cows greedily devoured the tasty treat.

But without a doubt, my favorite fall harvest memory occurred during the fall of my senior year in high school.  Danny and I were already dating steadily, and had planned on a Saturday evening date.  But my dad needed help shocking feed, so I had to tell Danny the date was canceled.  Instead of being upset at either me or my dad, he offered to help with the shocking.  I think it was his willingness to forego dinner and a movie to instead help me with my farm chores with which I first fell in love.

Or it could have been that wavy, blond hair.

(Autographed copies of all three of my books are now available from Kansas Originals through my website, yearonthefarm.com)

Next week:  Preparing for Winter

Meet (the other) Ethel!

In a blog last spring entitled Fred and Ethel are Back, I introduced two wild Canada geese that return to our farm each year to raise their babies.  I had affectionately named them Fred and Ethel after the famous TV sitcom couple.

This blog is about a different Ethel.

Early last summer, my 11-year-old great-niece persuaded her parents into letting her raise rabbits.  They purchased two rabbits, hoping they were male and female, so that she could raise one litter of babies.  As I stated in an earlier blog Our Dog Ate the Easter Bunny!, determining the sex of rabbits is not as easy as it may sound.  They named what they thought was the female Ethel, but they opted for an alternative TV sitcom character for the male’s name.  They named him Archie.

As it turned out, they were named appropriately!  Ethel became pregnant and the entire family waited anxiously for their new arrivals.  Unfortunately, Ethel’s maternal instincts left a little to be desired, and the first litter died.  As did the second.  And the third.

Ethel got pregnant easily enough, but did little to nourish and protect her babies.  Finally, with the help of their human owners, my great-niece was able to raise a litter to independence.

Now, what to do with all the rabbits?  My great-niece kept a couple for herself, then gave each of her young, female cousins at least one of the babies.  Her uncles and aunts were all thrilled.

There were no plans to raise any more litters, so my great-niece’s parents suggested she give away one of the adult rabbits as well.  Let’s see, who else do we know who might be willing to take a rabbit?  Who else do we know who is a sucker for animals?  Do you see where this is going?

I chose Ethel.  I was concerned that introducing another male into the herd, particularly one that was not fixed, might cause discord in the pen.  My two rabbits, Salt and Pepper, are both fixed males and, as littermates, are quite compatible with each other.  I hoped that they would find a female intriguing, knowing that I was in no danger of raising a litter of my own.

My great-niece and her father (my nephew) delivered Ethel to our farm one Sunday afternoon.  We had cleaned the pen and replaced the bales when they arrived with our newest addition.  My two males were initially a little intimidated by Ethel because she appeared to be a bit aggressive towards them.  But after a few days in the pen, she relaxed, and now the three of them are best of friends.

I like Ethel.  She is quite a bit tamer than my other two and she lets me pet her while she eats.  She hops out to greet me as soon as she hears my voice, most likely because she knows I always show up with food.

When Ethel first arrived, she was quite a bit thinner than my other two, and I now understand why.  Ethel, as it turns out, is a veritable garbage disposal.  She eats constantly!  She ate the enormous cucumbers from my garden that I had missed when picking, she ate the potatoes from my refrigerator that had gone a little soft, she ate the spinach that had gotten a bit old, and she ate the entire watermelon rind that I tossed into the pen. 

The grasses and weeds that were growing through the screened pen floor are now nibbled to nubs, and I have more than doubled the daily rabbit food allotment.  I’ll let you do the math on that one.

About a week after Ethel arrived at our farm, my great-niece texted me one day checking on how Ethel and the other rabbits were faring.  I told her that they all got along great now, and Ethel appeared to be putting on a little weight.

My great-niece responded to my text with, “She probably likes not getting pregnant every time she is with a boy.”

Hmmmm…Perhaps every prepubescent young girl should raise rabbits.

(Autographed copies of all three of my books are now available from Kansas Originals through my website, yearonthefarm.com)

Next week:  Fall Harvest

Searching for Zip

I introduced my horse, Zip, in my second blog, It’s Springtime on the Farm!  In it, I stated that instead of a robin, my first sign of spring was a bucketful of Zip’s hair from his shedding coat.  Other than that, I haven’t really talked much about Zip.  In today’s blog, I plan to remedy that.

I purchased BB as a yearling in 2003, and BJ was born on our farm in 2009, but Zip was already seven years old when I purchased him in 2006.  At that time, I was already riding BB, and I was looking for a trained horse that could be ridden by someone of moderate riding ability as a companion to me and BB on our trail rides.  I found Zip in another county through an ad in our local newspaper.  I was immediately impressed by his looks, his pedigree, and his training.  He had actually gone through two phases of training – once to ride, and then to show.  He had a calm demeanor and was very respectful.  We took him home the first day we met him.

I did, however, wonder why, after paying for additional training to show him, did the original owners decide to sell him?  I soon found out.thumbnail_IMG_0627

Zip, as it turned out, was lazy.

Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing in a horse.  It depends on how you want to use him.  A lazy horse can make an awesome kid horse.  You certainly don’t want to put a youngster on a high-strung, energetic horse that constantly wants to run.  Zip is not that.  In fact, as Zip has aged, he has become even more mellow, as impossible as that sounds.  He is now virtually bomb-proof.  When the first shotgun blast pierces the air at dawn on the opening day of pheasant season, BB and BJ will startle and charge out of the corral, snorting and bucking, tails flying.  Meanwhile, Zip, munching on hay at the feeder, will lift his head, stop chewing for a few seconds as he rotates his ears to hear better, then decide all is well and go back to eating.

The little kids in my family are appropriately cautious around BB and BJ, but as one of my great-nieces affectionately proclaimed, “I love Zip! He is fun to play with.”thumbnail_IMG_0619

Personally, Zip is not my favorite mount.  While lazy horses are great for little kids, they can be a source of irritation and frustration for a more experienced rider.  For example, Zip is a grass-snatcher, not an uncommon trait for a lazy horse.  On a trail ride, Zip will stop every few steps to snatch a few blades of grass, a tantalizing weed, or a low-hanging leaf.  He will then munch while he’s walking, then snatch again.

When I discovered this annoying habit shortly after Zip’s purchase, I was determined to break him of grass-snatching.  I consulted various training manuals and discovered that horses, like dogs, are highly intelligent and very trainable.  With an intellectual capability comparable to that of a two-year-old human, they have the ability to make cause-and-effect associations if the “effect” occurs within two seconds of the “cause”.

The training manual suggested that the rider allow the lazy horse to snatch at will (the cause) but then immediately (within two seconds) make the horse work by running tight circles (the effect).  Eventually, the horse will make the connection (if I snatch a bite, I will have to work) and will hopefully decide on his own that the bite of grass is not worth the extra work it causes.

Early one Saturday morning, I took Zip for a ride.  I was prepared.  I knew the key to training would be immediate and consistent response.  (This is also true for human two-year-olds, by the way.)  He snatched, I made him work.  He snatched, I made him work.  Over and over and over.  I was beginning to get discouraged, until…

I deliberately rode him past a freshly-cut round bale of sorghum.  Zip stretched his neck and opened his mouth to grab a bite…then closed his mouth and continued walking right past the bale.

I smiled, patted him on the neck and said, “Good job, Buddy.  Let’s go home now.”  I looked at my watch.  It had taken exactly two hours.

He tested me once or twice on later rides, but after the same run-tight-circles response from me, he hasn’t tested me in years.  I’ve noticed he still tries to snatch grass with other riders however.thumbnail_IMG_0503

I’ve told you all this as a prelude to an incident that occurred a couple of weeks ago.  You need to understand all three of my horses’ personalities in order to fully appreciate what happened that night.

It was a beautiful, star-studded fall night, and as Danny and I were changing into our pajamas, I opened our bedroom windows to let in the crisp, fresh night air.

Danny heard it first.  “Is that the horses?” he asked.  I listened.  I too, could hear them neighing.  Their calls were high-pitched and frequent.  Distress calls.  I turned on our central yard light and could faintly see the outlines of horses running along the fence in the pasture.  I grabbed some shoes and went outside in my pajamas to get a closer look.

I called back towards the house, “It’s BB and BJ!  Danny, I don’t see Zip!”  He then grabbed some shoes also, and came outside by me.  We listened, but could not hear Zip answer back.

Zip is our oldest horse.  It is not unheard of that an aging horse will, with no prior warning, die of a heart attack.  That was my fear that night as we began our search for Zip.

Danny ran to get the tractor so he could use the lights to search the pasture.  I ran to get our Ranger out of the garage.  He was already driving his tractor along the pasture fence as I passed him in our Ranger.  I motioned for him to join me in the Ranger.  It was much more maneuverable, and I could shine a searchlight out the side window while he drove.  We could cover more ground more quickly together in the Ranger.  Danny left the tractor running, with the lights on, near the fence by our house.

We didn’t talk much as we drove, each of us thinking our own thoughts.  Mine were fearful, but also puzzling.  Our three horses were constantly together.  If Zip were injured or dead, I couldn’t believe that the other two would knowingly leave him.  When I saw them racing around, calling to Zip, it appeared that they also had no clue where he was.  How could that be?

As we drove around that night, we checked every gate.  Dead or alive, Zip was somewhere in that pasture.  Of that we were certain.

“I saw something move!” Danny exclaimed.  He had seen the shadow of what appeared to be a large animal move in front of the brightly shining tractor lights.  We quickly drove back towards the house and barn.

“There’s Zip!” I told Danny.  Sure enough, all three horses were now contentedly grazing side by side near the barn as if nothing whatsoever had just occurred to disrupt the calm of a star-studded autumn evening.

I puzzled on it for days.  How had the horses gotten separated?  And why did Zip not answer the other horses’ calls to him?

It was my farrier, several days later, who gave me the most reasonable explanation.  “Here’s what probably happened,” Barrie said.  “BB and BJ are slowly grazing their way to the barn to get a drink of water.  They think Zip is right behind them.  When they get to the barn and don’t see him, they get freaked out.”

Even though horses have excellent night vision, Zip could have easily been out of sight behind one of the rolling hills in our pasture.  But that still didn’t explain why Zip didn’t answer their calls.  And then it occurred to me – Zip is lazy.

He was probably grazing his way to the barn when he first heard his high-strung friends calling to him.  Another high-strung horse would have answered immediately.  But Zip’s response was, “Yeah, yeah.  I’m coming.  But first, just one more bite…”  I’m sure he eventually answered, but by that time we couldn’t hear it over the sound of the engines.

Even though it was filled with anxiety and fear, the pajama-clad, nighttime search for Zip did have one positive outcome.  It definitely clarified something for me – lazy or not, I was awfully glad to get my Zip back.thumbnail_IMG_0487

(Before BJ, there was Pokey, a sweet-tempered Shetland pony.  You can read about her in the February chapter of The Return to the Family Farm.)

Next Week: Meet (the other) Ethel!

It’s Not Exactly Labrador

I’ve mentioned many times, in previous blogs, our two yellow Labrador retrievers, Russell and Fern. 

Litter mates, Russell and Fern have been companions since their birth in May, 2010.  Until recently, I was under the mistaken impression that the breed originated in Labrador.  Actually, the breed descended from St. John’s Water Dog, an English breed taken to Newfoundland by English fishermen in the eighteenth century.  It had a short, oily coat, was as comfortable in water as on land, was unaffected by the icy waters off the coast of Newfoundland, and was eager to please the fishermen for whom they worked.

Sound familiar?  Everyone who owns one of these wonderful dogs is nodding right now.  If you would like to read more about the origin of this breed, you can check out the website Where Do Labradors Come From.  My only guess as to the origin of their name is that Newfoundland is relatively close to Labrador, and the name “Newfoundland” for a dog breed had already been taken.

As our dogs have aged, I have noticed that they tolerate the heat of a typical Kansas summer less and less.  When they were younger, they would romp and play until about noon, and then ask to be let into our house, where they slept all afternoon in a totally-enclosed, temperature-moderated porch.

Nowadays, they will want to go outside around 7:00 a.m. on a summer morning, do their business, sniff around a bit, then come back panting and wanting inside by 7:15.  They spend virtually the entire summer day inside the porch, although, as Fern can attest, it’s not exactly a huge sacrifice.

Winter (understandably, considering their ancestry) has always been the dogs’ favorite time of year.  Contrast the previous photo of lethargic Fern in summer with this photo of ecstatic Fern rolling in the snow.

Then this past week, it happened! Fall arrived in Kansas! And with it came brisk, cool, dewy mornings just perfect for long walks with Fern and Russell.

I have not taught my dogs any tricks.  It’s not that they are not intelligent enough to learn them, it’s just that I’ve always felt that balancing a treat on your nose was overrated and, well, quite frankly, more than just a little demeaning.

I do, however, talk to my dogs.  And they know a number of words, with their favorite being, without a doubt, the word “walk”.

So, on that brisk, cool, dewy morning I asked our dogs, “Do you want to go for a walk?”

Fern leaped, literally leaped, into the air.  Russell, instantly infected by Fern’s enthusiasm, began chasing her around our yard.  While they playfully dodged and darted, hither and yon, I stood back and smiled.

I got my dogs back!

On our walk, they immediately reverted to a familiar, tag-team hunting routine:  Russell, with his better nose, sniffed the tall grass for the scent of a hiding or burrowing rabbit.

Meanwhile, Fern, with her better athleticism, watched and waited for Russell to flush out the prey.  At first glimpse of the rabbit, she took off, racing towards it at full speed.  Russell also took up the chase, heading it towards his sister.

In the old days, they would sometimes actually catch the rabbit.  These days, they rarely return with any bounty.  For them, the joy is now strictly in the chase.

I know that there are many out there who are lamenting the return of Old Man Winter with its bitter temperatures and biting winds.  Not me.

Because I got my dogs back!

(Before Russell and Fern, there was Wilson.  You can read all about it in the May and June chapters of The Return to the Family Farm.)

Next Week:  Searching for Zip

Everyone Needs a Mirror

“A sister is both your mirror – and your opposite.”  Elizabeth Fishel

I recently returned from my seventh annual “sister trip”.  I, my two sisters, and our three husbands spent almost a week in Michigan, a state to which we had never before traveled.  But the “where” is not as important as the “why”.  This annual traveling tradition began in 2013, shortly after we buried our last brother.  It became painfully obvious to us that life is short, and we wanted to make as many memories with each other as we could, while we could.

The quote by Elizabeth Fishel describes the three of us perfectly.  We are so very alike in so many ways, yet so very different in others.  That statement applies not only to our physical characteristics, but also to our personalities.  While physical characteristics are widely understood to be genetic in nature, there is ongoing debate as to how much of our personality is genetic, and how much is environmentally driven.

Regardless of cause, having both a mirror and an opposite can lead to some interesting personal revelations.  You know that one personality trait that drives you crazy?  The one you thought was totally opposite of your own?  Oops.  Turns out it was a reflection all along.

Physical similarities are much easier to analyze.  Over the years, I have been mistaken for each of my sisters at different times.  My favorite incident happened a number of years ago when my hair style happened to be very similar to that of my sister Joyce.  A woman came up to me while I was shopping, grabbed my arm, and said, “Hi! It’s so nice to see you again!”

I was fairly certain I had never seen this woman before in my life.

She continued chatting merrily for a minute or two, then asked, “How’s Stan?”  It was then that I knew.

I smiled and replied, “Just fine, last time I checked with my sister.”

The expression on her face began as confusion, slowly transformed to understanding, then was immediately followed by embarrassment.  I assured her that there was no need for embarrassment.  It happened all the time.

Yet, as much as we physically favor each other, the three of us, for whatever reason, tend to focus on our differences.

“I’m sure I have Grandpa’s eyes.”

“I think my facial structure is the most like Grammy’s.”

“You look the most like Joe.” (One of our brothers.)

“You remind me the most of Vernon.” (Another brother.)

And so it goes.

On our Sister Trip last year, after a lengthy, robust analysis of the origin of each of our physical characteristics – one by one – my sister Sherry’s husband, Olen, finally said with more than a little exasperation, “Who cares?  What does it matter who you each look like?”

The three of us immediately stopped talking and stared at him.  Did he just say, “What does it matter”?!  We each then gave him a “What planet are you from?!” look.

Oh, right.  Mars.

But the truth is, the physical characteristics really aren’t what matter.  Or at least they shouldn’t.  Do you want to know the one thing that does matter?

Animals and small children know what matters.  They know what’s important and what’s not.  Because they know that how a person treats those from whom they have nothing to gain is the truest test of character.

Animals and small children don’t care about the shape of your nose or the color of your eyes.  They also don’t care about what you do for a living or how much money you make.  Nor do they care about who you know or where you live.

What they absolutely do care about is how you make them feel when they are with you.  Are you kind?  Are you gentle?  And do you give them attention? 

Animals and small children are drawn to my sisters like bees to honey. 

And that’s really all I need to see in my mirror.

(My favorite “sister” story is “August – The Shopping Trip” in A Year on the Family Farm.)

Next week:  It’s not exactly Labrador

A Pictorial Tribute to Autumn, Part 2

Last week, I shared some of my favorite autumn photos of our farm in Ellis County, Kansas.  I would like to continue with my pictorial tribute to autumn in this week’s blog.  And so, without further ado…

(Autumn has always been my favorite season.  My favorite autumn story, called “The Hunter”, can be found in the November chapter of my first book, A Year on the Family Farm. )

Next Week:  Everyone Needs a Mirror

A Pictorial Tribute to Autumn, Part 1

Autumn has always been my favorite season of the year.  As a child, it might have been because my birthday was in autumn, and it signaled the approach of Christmas, with all the joy surrounding that season.

I still love autumn, but since our move back to the farm, my reasons for loving it have changed.  Shorter days and cooler nights mean less outdoor work and longer walks with my dogs.  It means time to take a leisurely ride on BJ.  It means open windows and fresh air.  It means the sound of melodic meadowlarks in the morning and the soothing, rhythmic chirping of crickets at night.

It’s a time of calm; a time to reap the rewards of all our hard work during the growing season.

In this blog, I want to share with you some of the reasons why I love autumn on our farm.  But how to describe it in words and do it justice?  That is the dilemma.

There is some disagreement over who first coined the phrase, “A picture is worth 1000 words.”   But there is absolutely no disagreement in its truth.  And so, having used only 214 words, I now give you some of my reasons why I love this season.

(Every photo in this blog was taken on our farm in Ellis County, Kansas)

Next Week:  A Pictorial Tribute to Autumn, Part 2

Bracing Up

“Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.”  John Ruskin, a nineteenth-century English writer said that. 

Of course, he did not witness the recent devastation of Hurricane Dorian. 

Nor did he ever visit the plains of Kansas.  I have referenced Kansas weather in earlier blogs, namely our cold, snowy winter in It’s Springtime on the Farm and our wet spring in Be Careful What You Wish For

Brace yourself.  Today I will be writing about wind.

Wind is one of the feature characteristics of the plains of Kansas.  With no mountains and few trees, there is little natural shield from the often-blustery prairie winds.  This is not always a bad thing, however.  I ask you, when the mercury climbs to the upper 90’s in the middle of a summer afternoon, would you prefer it to be still and sultry outside, or would you prefer a brisk, cooling breeze?  On those days, most of us are grateful when nature’s fan is turned to the “high” setting.

It’s only when the wind becomes destructive that I disagree with Ruskin’s assessment that “there is really no such thing as bad weather.”

Thanks to The Wizard of Oz, everyone is familiar with Kansas tornadoes.  In fact, for many people, that movie is the first thing that comes to mind when people hear “Kansas”.  I have, over the course of my lifetime, heard 758,931 Wizard of Oz jokes.  Just recently, I flew to Rapid City, South Dakota to babysit my grandchildren.  On my return flight, as I was checking in, the conversation went something like this:

Airport check-in guy: “Going to Kansas, huh?”

Me: “Yup.”

Airport check-in guy: “Hope you packed your ruby slippers!”  (He chuckled heartily.)

At this point, I gave him the benefit of the doubt that he was referring to Dorothy and not the original owner of the slippers, who was, of course, the Wicked Witch of the East.

Me: “Oh!  I get it.  The Wizard of Oz.  Good one!”  (I also chuckled heartily.)

I did not tell him that I had just been told my 758,932nd Wizard of Oz joke.

The reality is, I have lived in Kansas, in “Tornado Alley” my entire life and have never been personally affected by a tornado.  I have seen some, from a distance, but most were small, and did little damage.

The following photo was taken from our front porch one spring afternoon.  When I saw it, did I rush to gather my valuables, and then seek immediate shelter in our basement?  No, Silly, I ran to get my camera.  How else would I get the photo?

Unless it is a massive wall cloud, or too dark or rainy to see the tornado, that is the response of most locals.  The small rope tornado in the photo disappeared back into the clouds as quickly as it had appeared, and it did no damage.

Now don’t get me wrong.  Tornados can do serious damage, and should not be taken lightly.  On May 4, 2007, 95% of the town of Greensburg, Kansas was destroyed by a massive EF5 tornado 1.7 miles in width with wind speeds over 200 miles per hour.  That tornado made history.

But every thunderstorm doesn’t produce a rotating tornado.  Instead, straight line winds account for most of the wind damage that occurs.

Recently, we lost two trees in a thunderstorm that clocked winds of 78 mph for thirty minutes.  I was watching from a protected window as one of the trees was nearly bent in half.  Finally, it snapped.

“Well,” I told Danny, “we just lost another tree.”

That is one of the reasons there are so few trees on the prairie.  Grasses don’t break in the wind.

But, in spite of the potential damage, there is nothing quite as awe-inspiring as the sight of a majestic thundercloud.

Especially if you’re not under it.

(I describe encounters with thunderstorms in the Palm Sunday chapter of A Year on the Family Farm, in the April chapter of Another Year on the Family Farm, and in the April chapter of The Return to the Family Farm.)

Next Week:  A Pictorial Tribute to Autumn, Part 1

An Update on Junior

Remember Junior, the newest member of our farm family?  Sherlock, Jr. to be exact.  A couple of months ago, I described in a blog how two of my granddaughters selected our newest barn cat at our local Humane Society. 

Junior was an instant hit with every adult and child who met him.  He was super-playful, super-friendly, and super-cute.  I had a really good feeling about this cat.  However, at the time, I wrote that “the jury is still out” on how he did his job – namely, keeping our barn clean of unwanted pests.  More on that later.

During the past two months, I have gotten to know Junior pretty well and I can honestly say that his personality is different from that of every other cat we have ever owned.  For one thing, he is quite vocal and talks to me constantly.  As if he were carrying on a conversation.  And if I respond to his mews in “human-speak” he continues conversing indefinitely.

His meows have very different intonations. For example, his “meowwww” sounds rather whiny when waiting to be fed, his “meow?” sounds very curious as he follows me while doing chores, and his “meow, meow, meow!” sounds very excited as I call him to the barn for a treat.

Another difference is that he is the first cat that we have ever owned who licks my hand incessantly.  As I walk past him, he will grab at my hand just so that he can lick it.  When I pet him, he will quickly twist his body around so he can lick my finger.  I haven’t quite decided whether this is a complement or an insult.  Is he licking me because he loves me or because he thinks I’m too filthy to pet him?

In spite of Junior being a full-grown cat, possibly as old as two according to our vet, he is kittenishly playful.  He will leap high into the air to knock down a flitting butterfly, then race through the corral at top speed, only to end up high in the branches of the elm tree next to the barn.  All because he can.

Incidentally, I have removed the bird feeder I had hanging from that tree in my pre-Junior days.  Come winter, I will hang it in a different tree out of Junior’s territory.  I don’t want my beautiful songbirds to succumb to the same fate as the low-flying butterfly.

I held my breath the first time Junior leaped into the rabbit pen.  But it turned out, Junior was not aggressive, and the rabbits were not afraid.  Instead, they were both very curious.

Junior loves our dogs, but the feeling is not equally reciprocated.  One day, I saw Junior playfully bat at Russell’s face in order to get his attention.  Russell flinched, eyed Junior for a second, then turned and walked away.  Evidently, Junior’s bold attempt at friendship was a bit too forward for our meek, aging lab.  Russell now simply avoids Junior whenever possible.

The only times I have needed to scold Junior is when he has gotten into mischief in my garden.  He leaps onto my garden plants, pursuing a buzzing beetle, or – gasp! – one of my garden toads.  In doing so, he crushes the leaves of my cucumber plants, flattens my schwartzbeeren plants (described in my last blog – What the Heck is Schwartzbeeren?) and tears my garden netting.  I have found that the most effective deterrent is a quick spray from my garden hose.

He is slowly getting the message.

In another one of my earlier blogs I likened our cats’ personalities to male actors that we all know and love.  Badass Jack was our Clint Eastwood cat.  Likeable Sherlock, Sr. was our Tom Hanks cat.  And unpredictable Simba is our Al Pacino cat. 

Without a doubt, Junior is our Jim Carrey cat.

As for Junior’s job performance, a verdict has now been reached.  Junior is a keeper.  Since his arrival in our barn, I have found one dead lizard and one dead snake, but absolutely no evidence of a single mouse.  Not one mouse turd.  Not one nest.

Evidently, the mice just aren’t into comedy.

(Autographed copies of all three of my books are now available on my website through Kansas Originals.

Next Week:  Bracing Up

What the Heck is Schwartzbeeren?

That literally means ‘blackberries’ in German.  But unless you live in Ellis County, Kansas, I’m pretty sure the blackberry you are thinking of right now is not schwartzbeeren.  You’re thinking of a bumpy dark purple berry that looks similar to a raspberry, right?  That berry is well-known to most Germans also, who call it brombeeren.  So, what the heck is schwartzbeeren, you ask?  Before I can explain this berry and its bewitching hold on the locals, I need to give you a brief history lesson.

In the latter half of the eighteenth century, Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, but born a German princess, enticed German immigrants to settle the untamed Volga River region with promises of freedom of religion, no taxation for thirty years, and perpetual freedom from military service.  The hard-working Germans who accepted her offer maintained closed communities, retaining their German language and customs.  A century later, long after Catherine had died, the Russian government reneged on Catherine’s promises and began to draft the young men into military service.  Disgruntled, many of the Germans immigrated again, this time to America, where quite a few of them made their way to Ellis County, Kansas.

They brought with them the seeds of a plant they had discovered growing wild along the banks of the Volga River.  For want of a better name, they called the smooth, round, blackish berry schwartzbeeren.

It is a tart berry, delicious in baked goods such as pies and kuchen, a German coffeecake.  It grows on annual plants that can reach four feet in height in a single season.  The plants grow naturally along creek and river banks with the seeds spread by birds who eat the berries.  If grown in a garden, the plants require regular watering in order to produce an abundance of large, plump berries.

Each berry is filled with tiny seeds.  Berries naturally fall off each plant and re-seed themselves annually.  The climate of Western Kansas is very similar to the climate of the Volga River region, which is one of the reasons why the Volga Germans chose to re-settle here.  It is also why schwartzbeeren thrive here.

Every year, I reserve fully half of my garden space for schwartzbeeren.  We love them that much.  I freeze the excess berries I pick each summer for use during the winter.  The first year I planted my garden after our move to the farm, I sprinkled seeds from berries I had saved and dried the previous year.  Since then, the plants have re-seeded themselves.  Abundantly.  In fact, most of the “weeds” around my cucumbers, beets, etc. are actually schwartzbeeren plants growing where they are not wanted.

Schwartzbeeren are not easy to pick.  The plants are home to chiggers, minuscule blood-sucking bugs that crawl inside your clothes and give you a bite that itches like the dickens for several days.  And the berries grow low to the ground so it is also slow, dirty, backbreaking work.  And the berry itself is fragile so it requires a firm, yet gentle plucking technique.  If you squeeze the tender berry too hard, you end up with a handful of seeds for next year’s schwartzbeeren crop instead of berries for this year’s pie.  It can take an hour or more of picking to get enough berries for just one kuchen.

So, you ask, why on earth would I put myself through all that for a few berries?  Simple. Because my family loves them.  And this particular berry will never be found in any supermarket.

We, Ellis Countians, are not alone in our obsession over local berries.  In August, 2002, Danny and I took our family on vacation to Whitefish, Montana.  It happened to be peak picking season for the wild huckleberries that grow along the mountain ridges of northwestern Montana.  While we were there, we purchased huckleberry cookies, huckleberry-flavored candy, huckleberry-flavored tea, even huckleberry-scented soap.  One afternoon, Danny and I stepped into a small, locally-owned café for a little refreshment after a morning of sight-seeing.  The friendly woman behind the counter obviously knew every person who lived in the town and did not recognize us, so she asked us where we were from.  After a pleasant chat, she asked what we would like to order.  We pointed to the chalkboard advertising homemade huckleberry pie, and we each ordered a piece.  The previously-smiling waitress now paused and looked at us warily.  She then proceeded to explain how difficult the wild berries were to find and pick.  And that not everyone liked and appreciated the berries the way the locals did.  It was an acquired taste, she explained.  I sensed a bit of a warning when she asked us, were we certain that we still wanted huckleberry pie?  Two pieces of huckleberry pie?

We were certain.

We were quite convinced that we were the only non-locals in the café, because every eye in the place was watching us critically as we each took our first bite.  Thank goodness, we loved it!  It was delicious!  To the approval of all the observing locals, we cleaned our plates of every last crumb.

I totally got it.  I, too, feel almost obsessively protective of my schwartzbeeren.  You don’t work that hard just to see someone throw it in the trash.  So, if I offer someone a piece of schwartzbeeren pie, and that someone graciously declines saying, “No thanks, I don’t really care for schwartzbeeren,” I am never offended.  In fact, just the opposite.

Mmmmm. More for me.

(My mother, descended from Volga Germans, made entire meals out of schwartzbeeren and dumplingsIt was a simple, summer staple loved by our entire family and I still make it for my family to this day.)

Next Week:  An Update on Junior