Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Musing about the farm and its critters

This afternoon as I looked at the webcam of Zhen Zhen, the panda cub in San Diego, and pictures of Flocke, the polar bear cub in Germany, I was reminded of the dreams I had before arriving in New Bern. I dreamed that black bears were all over my yard and came into my house and just wandered around - not bothering anything. I was concerned in the dream but not very frightened. I tried to lock them out, but they just kept appearing. They didn't do anything except appear. The logo for New Bern (which means New Bear) is a black bear like Bern, Switzerland.

Then my cat made a plaintive cry and I remembered sitting on the bank of Coldwater River in Mississippi and watching several bobcat kits playing near a large pile of driftwood where their den was located. Mama Bobcat knew I was there, but I was very still and she didn't bother me. My smell was all over that area since I frequently spent large amounts of time there. Some of that time was on a bluff overlooking the river where I watched for the old gar to turn up - and I saw it a few times - huge and silvery on its belly. I often wondered that it didn't rob my Dad's trot lines.

We had pet cats, some outdoor, one indoor/outdoor, and a large pack of wild stray cats - some very large - began roaming our area. We tried to scare them off in various ways and make them leave the area. Some of our neighbors killed a couple of them as they attacked various farm animals. One of our outdoor cats disappeared. And, another showed signs of a great fight. Then, the cat food on the back porch began disappearing. We were poor and cat food was a luxury item. I worried about our cats. Night after night the dogs growled and the cats fought and the cat food disappeared. It was summertime and the windows were open. So was the back door with the screen closed to keep out the bugs. As we sat eating supper, I saw one of the wild cats come onto the porch and I shooed it off. This happened two more nights. The fourth night, I set my .22 rifle beside my chair at supper. When the wild cat appeared on the porch, I slowly lifted the rifle, aimed and fired through the screen. The cat flew off the porch and Mom would not let me go outside to see. The next morning, the cat was a few feet from the porch, dead.

I have never felt good about killing that cat, but I do understand why soldiers fight - to protect those they love. It's no cliche. And, no options existed in rural Mississippi for a pack of wild animals except death. The farmers and stockmen couldn't risk the threat to their livelihoods. And, youngsters like me didn't want to keep losing their pets. Cruel, yes, but I would do it again - and perhaps less cruel than a gas chamber in a shelter.

We were required to care for our animals, and, when the time came that their lives were over, we were expected to take care of that, too. Quickly, even with tears.

On the brighter side of farm life/country life, I've had the pleasure of petting raccoons, being almost bitten by an opossum, watching deer graze in our yard, seeing the bobcats at their den, being amazed at the size of that old gar in the river, digging for river mussels and finding ones with beautiful irridescent shells.

I've stripped bark from birch trees and written messages on it with sharp sticks. I've eaten fried catfish and hush puppies cooked in a dutch oven over a charcoal bucket at the river. I've walked from the river through the woods to our house at night, alone. I picked dewberries for the most delicious pie I've ever eaten. I've seen foxes slinking along the top of the levee. I've found rabbits under the shed out back, and I've dug in the corn crib for baby mice.

My brother, the hunter (ha, ha) killed a cardinal once. Mom told him that we only killed to provide food and to protect ourselves. So he cooked it over a fire in the back yard. Brave me tried to eat some of it - ugh. We were both sick.

I've been up close and personal with most kinds of snakes and never bitten. I've gathered moss and mushrooms and soft lichen and colorful leaves to take home as centerpieces for the table. I've leaned against a Jersey milk cow named Betsy and told her my troubles (just like Mom did every morning), I've fallen off a horse, I've stolen watermelons. I found my grandfather's and, subsequently, my uncle's still - fascinating mechanism. I lost a shoe in gumbo mud down in the new ground where I shouldn't have been. I've been chased by a bull and I've ridden a big sow whose name was Whitey. She didn't like me much after her babies were born.

I've shelled corn with a hand-turned corn sheller, which is probably in the garage. I've picked up pecans until I thought I was a permanent u-turn. And, I've snapped and shelled and canned every kind of bean and pea that will grow in Mississippi. I've eaten tiny ears of corn right off the stalk.

Ah, some very good memories. And, for these memories I am truly grateful. Amen.

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