Wednesday, March 30, 2011


It is late March. Typical to this month of the year it has been one of extremes in weather, at times cold and blustery, and others balmy and bathed in healing sunshine. In between these have been violent rain storms with hail, lightening, and tornado watches, all brought on by the colliding frontal systems that almost weekly push their way thru the state.

The rain and increasing warmth of the daily temps has also brought the world back to life and green again after the winter gray. Trees are beginning to be covered with a bright chartreuse flocking of tiny leaves and flowers and every surface, outside and in, is covered with a sickly pale green powder of the thick sticky pollen from the hordes of the trees around the house. Flowering shrubs are also reawakened and are beginning their spectacular show that southern gardens are famous for. The exploding reemergence of the continuing cycle of life in the world can be felt, heard, and experienced with all the senses.

March brings many things to life and mind and surprisingly there is much alliteration to them; spring (the official start there of), showers, spring break, shedding, sneezes, and snakes. So many folks I know complain about their horribly incapacitating allergies to this plethora of pollen, and walk around with Kleenex, swollen noses, and puffy, runny eyes. The horses are now dropping massive amounts of long fuzz as I groom them daily and I find piles on the ground where they roll trying to scratch the winter coat off. I am fortunate to not be allergic to either, the pollen, nor to the endless amounts of horse hair that finds its way into my nose, eyes, mouth, and which covers my clothes inside and out. As to the snakes, this time of year as their reawakening time, is not my favorite aspect of the season. You can feel when its snake weather. There is just a certain temperature and humidity that feels snaky. That is when they begin to show up in all sorts of places.

Last weekend, Sunday afternoon was spent in the ritual “clean the boat up” session. This traditionally is a group effort, which involves pulling the fishing boat up onto the trailer and up to the house to take all of the rusting fishing lures, empty beer bottles, piles of leaves and acorns, and anything left over from last summer and fall’s excursions out. The boat then gets a good scrubbing and rearranging of all the stuff and everyone feels good and ready for the next adventure. This process was finally finished and as my daughter and I walked to the back door to put away the cleaning stuff, I stepped on the first step and heard her behind me say “SNAKE”. This is a five letter word which always does get my attention and I turned to see what she was referring to. There on the carport, less than two feet away from where I had just stepped, was a fat, coiled up, young copperhead snake, its tongue flickering and tasting.

There is always the “holy shit” moment after finding one of these slithering serpents so close to one’s feet. My heart goes into overdrive in an instant and my mouth starts spitting obscenities that I never knew I knew, and for some strange reason I feel like standing higher on my toes, as if that would save me from a bite from the snake. Copperheads scare the stuffings out of me because their tendencies to be waiting in places like at our back door steps, or under the lawnmower just before I was going to hop on to cut the grass, or even the big sucker that I sat next too on a big granite rock by a quiet trout stream one day. The little ones also have the tendency to look incredibly like a pile of poop made by a small dog, which we have a few of and so have their monuments scattered here and there, and while I do keep eyes sharp to avoid them I don’t always look at them carefully enough to rule out a snake instead of mere poop.

This particular snake met with his demise before he could sink his tiny fangs into any of our feet or into any of the very curious dogs that were milling about, and we all cooled our nerves with a chilly brew. Our daughter and our son in law then needed to head to town for the evening and weren’t thirty seconds down the drive before I heard gun shots. Pow, Pow, Pow,….Pow! My cell phone showed a text “ANOTHER SNAKE” and Mark and I headed out to investigate this second serpent on this sunny Sunday.

This one turned out to be a much larger cotton mouth or moccasin, who had happened to be considering crossing the drive right when they were driving out. This one also met with its demise, but we were all left a bit jumpy about if there were more to be seen for the day. Fortunately we did not. It is a normal and expected part of spring that snakes move around after their dormancy of winter and we understood going into this farm that we would encounter them. They were here long before we built this house and I suspect that they will be here after we are gone. I would just rather understand their being here fills an ecological nitch, but would also rather to not have to come face to fang with them.

I have seen two more since that Sunday, one, an incredibly long black racer that I nearly tripped over in my barn aisle way. Not being a poisonous one I didn’t freak but told the thing to get out of my barn with a “shoo”. This snake was not very impressed with my threat but finally slowly retreated to the door to the barn and went his on way. Then yesterday, when I opened the doors to the trailer I store my hay in, there on the bale in front of me was a kind of interesting colored one, who dropped out of the trailer and slid silently under the trailer. I had to look him up in the field guide to find he was a Speckled King Snake, and while I am not a fan of any serpent I was happy to see this one because the mice who also live in that trailer kill time by chewing on hay ropes and breaking bales open. So I hope this fellow stays and enjoys many of the evil rodents, but just not when I around, a symbiotic relationship of sorts with a slithering serpent.

And so March comes to a close in a few days. Spring in entrenched. Our Purple Martin colony is full and noisily vibrant. The horses are beginning to look like polished marble with their newly emerging coats, and the infamous Jack has eaten nothing to report and stays thankfully away from the vet’s clinic. I have waged war on the overgrown garden, again, and will be planting the summer vegetables soon with wishful hopes for a bountiful crop. I did find a clue yesterday about the mystery of the missing peach crop from last summer…we had stacked a bunch of landscape fabric on the ground in the corner of the garden last year and it had not been moved since we put it there. Well, I did move it yesterday and lo, I found hundreds of peach pits underneath it there. It looked as if a critter had made it a mission to stash the ripe peaches under this cloth, maybe to save for a rainy day? Who knows? I mean, what kind of animal steals peaches and hides them? I will definitely be watching the peach tree more carefully this year and make sure the hot wire keeps the browsing deer out of the garden, if possible. Ah, the simple life on the farm. Not. Still, it is good.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


Many years ago my father introduced me to a writer named Ayn Rand and to her books on her philosophy of what she called “Objectivism”. Her stories were of heroes and heroines of strong character, intelligence, and who were the creators and do-ers in societies of those who would be carried along on the backs of these heroes’ actions. Perhaps her most famous book, “Atlas Shrugged”, involved a group of such characters in a time of an industrial boom in the world and these people were the ones making progress happen. When they felt that they were taxed to the point of suffocation and felt that the weight of a world they were making spin was taking too much of a toll on them, they left it all behind and formed a commune of sorts, leaving the ungrateful behind to figure out how to keep it going without them. Hence the name of “Atlas Shrugged” in reference to the mythical strong man who held up the sky and kept it from dropping to the earth below. I did a senior English project on her books and her philosophy and I took much of her thoughts to heart. I knew personally, characters like hers of such extreme strength of will and who acted with deliberation and an honesty of unparalleled proportion. My father is one such person, and he has been my “Atlas” my entire life, and for so many others whose lives he has touched in his long career and life.

My father is now old. He is ready to move on from this life. I know how much he hates that he is no longer super man, the sole hero to us all. He is tired, he hurts, and he is no longer able to carry our hopes and our faith that all is good in the future. It isn’t necessarily. And for the first time in my life, I can totally empathize with his feelings. No I do not wish a soon end of my father’s life, but the inevitable will happen at some point and in his mind that time is soon, or so I think he hopes . He never wanted to be old and decrepit and dependent on helpers to tend to his meds, and check on his pace maker. His has been a life of total independence on anyone’s actions, or anyone’s opinions of his actions. He can no longer be this thing that he was for so long. He can no long be Atlas, and he would rather die than be ineffective. I understand it now. The hero and warrior that he was, is now simply tired of fighting and wants to put the weight of the world down.

My earliest memories and my first awareness of my dad, was of me riding on his shoulders when he would take us on hikes at various parks and such. I would hold his ears for balance and I would pretend to steer him by pulling one way or another on them. I of course out grew this activity pretty quickly but my father continued to be the pillar of strength and the force that carried so much of my formation and personality. He pushed us, my brothers and me, to be the best we could be at whatever the endeavor, to be self reliant, and to expect excellence out of ourselves. I certainly did not make the aim in many of my attempts but I gave it a whole effort when I did, and was always seeking the nod of his approval.

As a young man called to the military he proved himself to be the leader and hero and was decorated with many of the highest medals awarded. After a very successful career of being a commercial contractor building shopping centers, my dad sold his business and was in a bit of limbo at what to do next when fate called him to a much different line of work. My brother David, who I think was Dad’s favorite child and who was so much like him, was killed in a car crash just before his 21st birthday, during this limbo time for my dad. David had been encouraging Dad to get into politics for years, because David felt that if the brightest and best don’t take on the responsibility of such, that the society will be governed by the leftovers, morons. With David’s death as his motivation, Dad stepped into the city government, and ultimately became the chief manager and tsar of this town and held the mayor’s office for 22 years, and did so without ever taking a penny of the salary.

There were many who did not like the iron hand that he held. There was the Christmas Eve that the windows to his car, parked just outside the living room where we sat, were blown out by gunfire. Those who were used to the good ol boy method of getting things taken care of were surprised to find him unwilling to take their bribes and under the table offers. The city was a wreck in disgrace when he took it on his shoulders to carry and he left it in a perfect financial state and a safe place to live, when the fickleness of the voters forgot what it had been like before him and un-elected him.

The un-election was a deeply wounding thing for him, feeling the pain of putting so much of his life and spirit into being Atlas for this town and its people, and having his efforts become so unappreciated, and largely forgotten. He rebound, however, with another career, and then yet another, each one was left in the best business shape possible.

My dad was a always a fierce competitor, and played sports with brawn and a mental toughness that would leave you gasping. The first time I played racquet ball with him, my shoelaces were soaked and I was totally winded, while he bounced around like a puppy slamming the ball across the room with arms of steel. He loved to take the family of ski trips to Colorado and dragged us down countless idiotic black diamond runs, where we fell for distance, and he characteristically fought the moguls with a definite lack of grace clamping onto his ever present cigar.

He continued playing with this focus, and worked out with weights daily, even through his first couple of rounds of chemo therapy with a bout of throat cancer a few years back. Finally the poison that was being used to try to save his life, knocked him down and he never fully recovered that same fire. His mighty strength has waned, and the once fierce sparkle to his eyes has dimmed. So now he waits, for that which awaits us all.

Today marks the one year time passing of the loss of my other Atlas, my beautiful gelding who died from colic last March 15th. I can not help but feel the pain of this memory, still a very raw nerve, but mostly compartmentalized now so I can function. Reading my last year’s blog entry can open it right up, and tears are not far away when I do. Seasons have come and gone but the grief remains.

It is such a sad part of this wonderful life that it has to end, however the age and whatever the form and it is only the ephemeral memories that keep their spirits here, and close. I have been so fortunate to have been a part of my father’s life and there is no way I can ever repay what he gave me and the things he taught me. I now sadly wish him a gentle crossing when his time does finally come, a truely great Atlas that will be so sorely missed. The world will never be the same without him.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Singing in the Rain... or Not

There are few things more soothing than waking to the first spring thunder storm that is slowly making its way across the landscape. Low, continual and deep rumbles are interspersed with resounding cabooms and sharp cracks. There are the brief flashes of light with the following ripping of the sound barrier, a crack that shakes the windows and leaves one wondering what got hit so close by. The rain is a constant, socked in and soaking the earth. The sounds are very hard to inspire one to get out of bed. The safety of the flannels and pillow lured me into repeated snoozes until finally I could stay there no more and I got up to see what the rainy day would bring. After coffee I figured the horses might like their breakfast, albeit later than usual, so I donned my long rain coat, my snowy river felt hat and pulled on my water proof tall boots and headed to the barn.

I fed the first group, letting them into their stalls to get out of the rain for at least part of the day. The last to be dealt with was Cistine, whose paddock has no shed roof for shelter and so she was anxiously waiting for me to come rescue her. I grabbed her halter and set out into the rain to bring her in. I stepped forward through the fence line to put on her halter and she stepped quickly away from me. This repeated several times. The problem was, she apparently just didn’t like my hat and coat, and she decided that she just absolutely could not be caught and haltered. I could get face to face with her and she would reach up and bite my hat and then reach down and bite at my coat, but I could get not closer to her. After a few unsuccessful attempts to reach over her neck to get the halter strap around her, that were met with her head going straight up and her walking backwards, I knew the game was on. This issue of not being caught, was what the new focus of my day was going to be about. It was the principle of the issue, she didn’t like my garb and wasn’t going to play put on halter and go in to the barn, like she has done every day of her entire life. The choice was to leave her in the rain with no food or use the moment as a lesson of sorts. I chose the later.

Years ago a fellow named Monty Roberts brought a really old school method of breaking horses to the mainstream with a book and videos and such, and he called himself the “Horse Whisperer”. The techniques of his method went way back to very early horsemanship and were based on principles of the psychology of prey animals and how they react to being pursued. The idea of it was that one would chase the horse, and direct its movement until the horse finally gave up its fear and began being curious about the pursuer to the point where the horse turned to the pursuer and gave in and “joined up” with the pursuer. This point of acceptance in a horse is a huge break through when the training process is going on. It goes to the core of the relationship that is forming at the beginning of the training and sets the tone from then on. Breaking a horse can certainly be done by other methods than going to this end but it is a very fast and definitive moment that some horses really need to become solid partners with their riders, especially ones with strong opinions, like whether they like your rain coat and hat or not. So standing in the pouring rain with an empty halter, I realized that this was to be my expenditure of time and effort for the next minutes, or however long it took to win the game. “Oh boy”, I thought, but somewhere I had known this moment had been coming and I resolved to see it through.

I began with approaching her with the halter and if I reached to put it on her head and she even flinched away, I would make her move away from me. I kept her moving across the pasture, back and forth, cutting her desired paths off and sending her where I wanted her to go. She did not want me on her left so that was where I concentrated my body language, pushing but watching for signs of submission on her part. There was no room for almost here. This was a clear line drawn, that only a willingness to be haltered was the answer, and patiently I walked behind her, back and forth, back and forth.

Over head the skies were still rumbling and the rain was steady. An occasional flash of lightening would elicit a,”SHIT!” from my mouth and a involuntary cringe in an expectation of becoming flash fired by a direct strike of these bolts. Fortunately none struck so close that I did not mange to survive to write these words but at one point I seriously questioned my sanity for the sake of an issue with a stubborn mare, and on ward I trod relentlessly pushing this silly beast. The dogs watched this parade from the safety and dryness of the barn and did not give their opinions of the scene nor of my apparent total lack of sanity.

She kept an ear on me at all times and would periodically act like she had tired of the game and was ready to stop. As soon as I raised my hand off she went shaking her head and narrowing her eyes in a peevish way. I wondered at just how long this was going to take, but the choice to stop and pick it up another day was not an option.

At long last she began chewing and making mouthing type movements which I took for a good sign as all good herbivores do this to indicate their lack of interest in eating another critter and to hopefully avoid being eaten as well. She began stopping more frequently and would put her nose to the ground, also a good sign, but still held out when I went to halter her and moved away. Two full hours of walking in the pouring rain in a spring thunder storm following an opinionated horse, finally came to a close and she dropped her head and stuck her nose in the halter. She then reached over and took another half hearted nip at my hat to let me know she had relented, she was hungry and wet after all, but she still just did not like that hat and didn’t want me to forget it. She quietly walked with me to the barn and I fed her her long awaited breakfast after she had rolled in the dry shavings to get the ichiness off. I left her to her meal and went back to the house for dry clothes and more hot tea.

I returned after a few hours to turn her back out, the rain having mostly moved on and thunder quieted. I did wear the hat for curiosity and when I walked into the stall she immediately reached up and grabbed my hat with her teeth. She did not move away tho this time when I reached up to the side of her neck, as she had done for the previous several hours. I took the hat off, let her smell it, and then placed it on her head and she was fine with it. I guess as well as the new shape, the wet smell of felt must have been strange enough to cause the holdout.

Who knows with horses, what they will be freaked out by and behave so adamantly about. How can you possibly know what to school them about until you really need to school them on it? How do know which buttons will do what until you push just the right one? You can’t, and that is why horse training is never in a straight line. It requires a whole bunch of patience and a willingness to do stuff like walking for two hours in the rain dodging lightning bolts to make a point. But my still damp hair will straighten back out eventually, my clothes are in the dryer, I have a new cup of tea brewing, and tomorrow is just another challenge waiting to happen in horse world. Silly critters, they are.