Missing the Farm, Making a New Home

ImageI lived on a farm for many years, a beautiful place that I loved with all of my heart. My ex-husband, Ed, used to joke that I wouldn’t have married him if he hadn’t owned the farm when I met him, and I always laughed when he said that, but there was some truth to it.

I fell in love with the farm just as much as I did with Ed. It was 90 acres of gently spooling Maryland farmland when I married him, and 135 acres when I left.  We undertook many conservation practices together to improve the land and make it much healthier environmentally, as well as more inviting to wildlife. First and foremost, we stopped using pesticides and gradually phased out the rental farmers who continued to do so.  Then Ed started a successful nursery growing plants for green, or living, roofs, which help to mitigate storm water run off.  And in place of corn and soybean fields, we allowed some of the land to revert to native grasses, which we mowed just once or twice a year, helping ground-nesting birds to complete their breeding cycles. In other spots, we planted native meadows that drew all manner of wonderful pollinators, and with USDA assistance we stopped allowing our animals to graze in streams and fenced them out of them, planting native trees to help stop erosion. We also dug a vernal pond, which became the go-to mating spot for lusty amphibians from miles around.  When a local bee keeper asked us whether he could keep 20 hives on our land, we said yes, increasing pollination rates exponentially and producing envy-igniting crops in my fruit and vegetable gardens.

It’s hard to say what benefited the most from our practices, which Ed continues, but I know for sure who did.  It was I.  Every day that I lived there, my faithful dogs – first Archimedes and then Huckleberry Hound, rescues, both – and I walked the trails and streams that crisscrossed the farm.  Like Ed and his father before him, I came to know every rock, tussock and hillock on the farm.  I knew where the foxes denned and the woodcocks performed their spring mating dances.  I could tell within a week when the orioles would return each spring, and when they would leave in late summer.  I knew just when the blood root bloomed and where the May apples flowered. I could tell you where to find the best wild raspberries, the biggest persimmons and the fattest black walnuts on the farm.  And though I kept the information to myself because Ed and every farmer hates them, I knew exactly where the groundhogs made their tunnels and raised new generations of young vegetable eaters – preferably those in my garden.

I have slowly come to grips with the loss of my marriage, but I still mourn the farm, sometimes in deep racking sobs that I hope none of my close-by neighbors in Annapolis can hear.  I miss the freedom to wear no clothes or squat to relieve myself in my backyard.  I miss the calls of the great horned owls, drawing me out in the middle of the night, flashlight in hand.  I miss the shy skunk that came every evening to forage under my bird feeder, allowing me closer and closer, only spraying when Huckleberry and I inadvertently startled him.  I miss the spotted fawns whose mothers tucked them in high grasses where I found them napping, sun warmed and smelling of clover.  I miss the contours of the farm, which swelled and shrank with the seasons. And most of all, I miss my dog, who is graying in place with Ed.

When I moved to Annapolis a year ago, it was hard to see any similarities between my timid third of an acre here and the farm I’d left behind. The only wild things I saw at first in this orderly suburban neighborhood were dandelions, and my neighbors chastised me for them.  But as the weeks and months went by, I discovered foxes, raccoon and deer, along with a sweet opossum who ambles through my neighbors’ yard most evenings. I planted native plants that drew butterflies,hummingbirds, bees, moths and amphibians. One fall night, I heard an eastern screech owl outside my bedroom window, and last spring, just as I did at the farm, I had blackpoll warblers in the hemlocks during spring migration.

I even managed to draw some bluebirds, one of my favorite farm residents.

Just days after I moved in, I told my sister, who was helping me get settled, that I wanted to put up a bluebird box. “Really”, she wondered dubiously. “Here?”   “Yes here,” I insisted.  “There have to be bluebirds somewhere around here, and if there are, I want them to find their way to my yard.”

The next day, we went out and bought a bluebird box and mounted it on a pole in my yard, positioning its opening to the east, just as the bluebirds prefer. For good measure, I even attached a dish with dried meal worms, something I never had to do at the farm, but which I thought might increase my odds in Annapolis.  When I went to work the next morning, I told my sister to keep an eye out for bluebirds, and she rolled her eyes at me as I drove off.  But when I got home that night, Alexandra could hardly wait for me to get in the door.  “You won’t believe what I saw,” she said. “In the magnolia tree.  A pair of them.”  “Bluebirds?”, I asked with a smile.  “Yes,” she said with an even wider one. “And they already found the nesting box.”

All of us, it seemed, were in the process of making a new home.

Two weeks later, the female began to build a nest, a soft pile of green grasses that measured four inches high in the box. By summer, despite one wren attack that destroyed the first clutch of eggs, and after my cat Nellie got outside and nearly ate the female bluebird, the pair produced a second clutch that resulted in four beautiful fledglings.  All summer and fall, the bluebird family stayed around my garden, six blue-and-fawn-colored beauties, hunting insects, splashing in the birdbath and snacking on the daily replenished supply of dried meal worms.

Now in my second spring in Annapolis, I still miss the farm, I always will, but I’ve brought some of its spirit with me by making my little corner property the wildest and most wildlife-welcoming in the neighborhood. This year, in addition to raised vegetable beds alive with early produce, there are two bluebird boxes in the yard, one for the chickadees that claimed it early to start their family, and the second for my increasingly tame bluebirds who are back house shopping with an eye to expanding their family yet again.

We are all happy to be here.

ImageImage

 

 

 

Come Spring, Paradise is Right Outside My Back Door

 

Image

 

 

We all travel for different reasons. Some go for business alone.  Others, for pleasure or a mix of the two.  I love to travel in no small part because I am an inveterate observer, and sometimes I just plain run out of good material close to home, especially in winter.

But not in Spring.

At this time of year, I prefer to watch other travelers, mostly avian ones, who travel to perpetuate their species. Living as I do just a mile from the Chesapeake Bay in Annapolis, Maryland, it is but a five minute bike ride up to Greenbury Point, a thin peninsula where the Severn River meets the Chesapeake, and birds of all sizes and species make their way above, through, or to it.  In winter, the rivers, streams and creeks of the watershed are filled with overwintering waterfowl, from snow geese and tundra swans to lesser scaups, buffleheads, goldeneyes, common and hooded mergansers, teals and all manner of other ducks, in particular. By March, however, they are mostly gone, headed north again to their breeding grounds, and for a few weeks it is mostly the bluebirds that keep me interested as I walk the two mile loop that circles Greenbury Point, their feathers lapis blue against the dry, dun and wheat-colored grasses.

Come April first, though, I am eagerly scouring the sky and listening for the piercing, cawing shriek of one of my favorite early migrants: the osprey. Sartorially splendid in a black coat with a white chest that pokes out like a cravat on top of a dress shirt, ospreys are commanding, rather than purely gorgeous, birds. Truth to tell, they remind me a little of Charles De Gaulle, especially their beaks, but they have his hooded eyes and dignified bearing, as well. And like De Gaulle, I wouldn’t ever cross an osprey, not when you see how they swoop down, hover over a fish under the water and then pluck it out, position it head first in its talons like a missile, and fly off, all literally without missing a beat. It’s usually only eagles that are big enough to chase and challenge ospreys, but they are rare on Greenbury Point and ospreys are plentiful, so the ospreys run the show.  Other birds wisely avoid the two foot long raptors with their five foot wing spans and sudden, feet first, plunging dives.

The first ospreys showed up on April 3 this year, the same week as last year, a fact that I find comforting in its predictability.  By the next day there were eight of them around Greenbury Point, all of them sitting in pairs on the man made nesting platforms erected in the Bay about fifty yards off the coast. From land, at least to these eyes, they looked like they were assessing the platforms’ conditions and planning their spring renovations. Yesterday, there were over a dozen ospreys, many busy ferrying big branches out to the platforms where their mates waited, staking their claims and eager to start building their nests for imminent egg laying and brooding.  As they flew over,they called repeatedly, a sound that echoed for miles and made me happier even than the blooms of my pink magnolia, which covered my tree this week.

Image

Sometimes I sit and watch the ospreys for hours. Sometimes they watch me.  They bicker with their mates, as all of us do, but unlike humans they stick with them for life, recent studies suggest, and they return season after season to the same breeding grounds, commited to a new cycle of building and breeding that fills me with optimism, awe and more than a little bit of envy.

Image