Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Nest

The Nest

North San Juan, 1990s. When we drove through the front to come home to our North San Juan house, we had to get out of our car, work our way through a pack of unaccountably fat dogs considering they were telling us that they hadn't been fed in days and days and days, and walk around to the left side of our two car garage to reach the deck that led to the front door some thirty feet away. And each time we did that, and we did it at least once and usualloy several times a day, a Cassin's finch hen would burst out of her nest screaming, “Oh my Gawd, they're here, the Barbarian Bird Eaters are here, fly, fly for your lives!”

Well, she didn't actually say that as she shrieked and squawked to the top of her little bird's lung capacity, but that's what she meant. And she did that every time we tried to get into our house through the front door. She was a very emotional bird, and very tiresome.

For all of her emotionalism, she knew how to build a good nest. She and her mate used it each year when they returned in the spring. Each year with a few minor repairs the nest was good to go. She hatched out at least two clutches a year, sometimes more. For a three year period, this pair of finches were our primary source of red birds for our garden.

She couldn't even get a drink on her own. On several occasions we watched her cock fly to a perch over the water source, survey the scene and chirp out an all-clear before she fluttered out of a tree to drink her fill. Who knows what other duties he had besides impregnation and water watch, but she appears to have been a demanding mistress.

After three years Joanne had had enough of being dive bombed and shrieked at. The hen had already hatched out a clutch and the fledgelings were sort of on their own, flying competently if not gracefully, and with only the odd feather sticking out, and so one day she tore the nest down.

The hen was understandably upset because this time the Barbarian had actually struck. Her home/maternity ward was nothing more than a scattering of sticks and twigs.

The hen quickly organized her family into a construction brigade and she, her long suffering spouse (probably grumbling all the while), and her two most recent fledgelings set about rebuilding the family mansion. They built a structural wonder. You wondered if it would stand up under a finch fart let alone a heavy wind. Sticks stuck out at all angles and the deck underneath was littered with wisps of straw. Definitely not up to her standards. But it was also a wonder that she even got any nest up at all.

That was the last year she ever built a nest at our house. And it was the last of the red birds at our house. I didn't miss her attacks of hysteria and I didn't miss tripping the light fantastic around fresh bird poop on the deck. But I did miss the red birds themselves. They were beautiful.

Lucky, the Cutting Horse

Auburn, California, 1960s. When we lived in Auburn, Joanne taught math and science at Colfax High School. Our friend Claudia also taught at the high school, Home Ec. But this story isn't about either Joanne or Claudia. It's about Claudia's horse, Lucky, a quarter horse mare, a cutting horse who had developed navicular in both front feet and had to be “nerved. “

Cutting horses are bred to isolate a selected calf from a group of them and herd them to a predetermined destination. Since the calf will usually have entirely different ideas, this will require an extremely agile horse. Whether stopped or moving, a good cutting horse can go in any direction, forwards, backwards, sideways, up, down, on four legs or two, and do it instantly. Cutting horses are among the greatest athletes on earth.

Lucky received her cutting horse training from fillyhood and became a champion, but it's tough being a cutting horse. Her front feet gave out from the constant pressure and torquing of sudden stops and direction changes, and she was nerved at age six. When a horse is nerved, certain nerves in the pastern are severed. No more pain. No more feeling of any kind there. No more roar of the greasepaint and smell of the crowd. Lucky went from being a contender to Claudia's private saddle horse.

Lucky was an acceptable riding horse, but you had to be careful, because she never ever lost her early cutting horse training. The first rule to riding a cutting horse is to be careful what you tell her to do, because she will do it instantly. The second rule is to not fall off if you violate the first rule. If you accidentally ask her to do a 360 on her hind legs, that's what she will do. Sorry about you.

Claudia was a very good rider and could be relied upon to maintain a light rein and a firm seat and not give Lucky any unintended directions. I'm not nearly that good.

I only rode Lucky once, but it was memorable. I can't remember why, but we were somewhere near the Auburn airport. For some reason, someone had to ride Lucky back to our place rather than trailer her. For an even more mysterious reason, that someone had to be me. I don't really understand how all this happened. Story of my life.

It was like riding a powder keg with a fizzing fuze. Sit very still, Ken. Relax. Don't put your heels into her sides. Don't neck rein right or left. Don't break wind. It was one of the longest rides of my life, considering nothing happened. She was very good to me, but she was way too much horse for me.

We got back safely and Lucky once again roamed our pasture where she was an honored guest. It was here, in our pasture, that I saw Lucky display a stunning ineptitude. We had grown a little corn, harvested the ears, and pulled the stalks out. We threw the stalks over the fence into the pasture for the horses. They loved them. Lucky picked up a corn stalk and began to munch on it. The motion caused the root ball end of the stalk to rustle in the glass. It scared the liver and lights out of her.

She backed away and, naturally enough, the other end of the corn stalk followed her. That was enough. She took off around the pasture, corn stalk clenched in her mouth, running madly with a=tghe rootball waving in the breeze and slapping her on the rump. She was frightened, but she never stopped chewing. Chewing and running. Running and chewing.

Eventually she bit through the corn stalk and the root ball dropped off. But she never put it together that she was running from her own dinner. You don't have to be a genius to be a cutting horse, just smarter than the average calf.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Night on Bald Mountain

One August around 1963 or 1964 Joanne and I rode into Desolation Valley and camped by Phipps Lake at the foot of Phipps Peak. According to Google sources, Phipps Peak is 9,234' above sea level. And what a view. To the west you could see the coast mountain range and to the east, pretty as could be, Lake Tahoe and then the high desert heading towards Utah. I don't think we could actually see Utah, but we could see a really long way.

Joanne rode her large Thoroughbred type gelding, Sam (a shortened form of Samsonite because his original owner thought he had a head resembling a piece of luggage) while I rode Legend. We had enough food for ourselves and grain for the horses for a couple of days camp out.

Phipps Lake is but one of many tiny lakes. I'm sure that in Minnesota they would be called ponds. But each tiny lake provided home to golden trout. Golden trout are really rainbows who live at a high altitude and develop an oily, salmon-like flesh. The trout in Phipps Lake didn't like worms and salmon eggs were blech, but they adored helgramites. We were lucky enough to find a few and enjoyed a golden trout dinner.

At 9000+ feet spring comes late and lasts only a few weeks at most. We were lucky enough to be there for Phipps Peak's spring. We even found heather blooming, and wild daffodils blooming around tiny little elven pools. On the second day of our camp out we rode around the area for several hours, stopping here, gaping there, and at last decided to return to camp. That's when I learned that Sam and Legend were two different horses.

Sam wanted to return to camp the way we had come, following his hoof prints back to camp. If we wandered around lost on the way up, he wanted to wander around lost on the way back.

Legend, however, had a different idea. She wanted to go back to the trailer parked some miles away on a flat just west of Highway 89. And she wanted to go straight. If that meant jumping off a cliff, she would have wanted to do that.
Neither of these horses had really great ideas for getting back to camp, but Sam's was far safer. I can truthfully say that Legend never had a good idea in her life, and you could really get damaged if you let her do the thinking for the two of you. I know. And I'll tell you all my sad story soon.
But meanwhile we had spent a couple of nice days. We had come up with three other riders the first night, but they left the following morning and we were by ourselves. Joanne was in charge of making our beds which she did by laying our sleeping bags out side by each and then setting up our saddles at the heads. Then she spread a clear tarp over the whole thing, thereby improvising a tent. Stirrups dangled down to each side and everything smelled of horse, but I've smelt and slept worse.

The sun went down, darkness came, we put out our fire and went to bed. One good thing about sleeping in a shelter improvised from clear plastic tarp, you can see the sky. One bad thing about sleeping in a shelter improvised from clear plastic tarp, you can see the sky.

The night started out clear. The stars twinkled and did all of that start stuff. But soon a wind came up and clouds covered up our lights show. Not to worry. Another lights show came along. Thunder, this time, and lightning. Winds to bend the tall trees surrounding the glad where we camped. Lightning striking all around us. Did we tie the horses securely? Or are we going to have to walk home carrying our saddles? And it went on and on. Rain fell. Wind tugged at the tarp.

There is this one thing about me. When things get tough and more than I can manage, I drift off to sleep. And that's what I did here. If we were going to be killed by lightning, I didn't want to be around when it happened.

The next morning was crystal clear. We saddled up and returned to the flatlands of Lake Tahoe as though nothing had happened. And in nature's overall scheme, nothing had happened. Nothing at all.

Copyright Ken Harris 2009

Sunday, May 17, 2009

A Meditation on Scottish Deerhounds

My wife and I got most of our two Scottish Deerhounds, Mary Lincoln and Merry Andrew, from a friend in Auburn. Scottish Deerhounds are keen of eye, fleet of foot, and possess the uncanny ability to gratify their desires while they ignore yours and all the while make you love them for it. What would be graceless intractability in any other dog becomes charming eccentricity in a Scottish Deerhound.

Scottish Deerhounds are a large breed of sight hound. Imagine an eighty pound Greyhound with grey, shaggy, wiry hair. Alternatively, imagine an Irish Wolfhound who is a hundred pounds lighter and doesn't take the world so seriously.

Since the woman who gave us our dogs breeds deerhounds, she must also show them. This involves some travel. Deerhounds like to lay down and nap. Next to running, sleeping is their favorite sport and they might indulge themselves twenty hours a day. Even more if the weather is bad. And when they nap, they like to maximize the floor space they take up. That instinct lies deep within their DNA. Since it doesn't take very many horizontal deerhounds to overflow a Camry, it follows that any deerhound transporter needs a larger vehicle. At least an RV, if not a U-Haul.

Our friend and her dogs were in Southern California and stopped for the evening at a dairy farm. She let two dogs out. They saw a coyote in the distance and immediately gave chase. Silently. They don't bay like beagles.

The coyote saw two large, hairy beasts coming at him and took off. Deerhounds can cruise at 30 mph and the coyote had no chance. But he gave it his best shot. He juked and jived, zigged and zagged, cut left, cut right, and flat flew as fast as he could. But no matter what he did, the deerhounds got closer and closer. Finally he thought to himself, “Nuts, you guys win. Kill me now.” And he rolled over onto his back and submitted.

The deerhounds tagged him with their noses and went off looking for something else to chase. The coyote was left sniffing his arm pits and wondering if there was something wrong with his deodorant.

That was all good entertaining for everyone, but sometimes a deerhound's activities can be an embarrassment. It was spring in Northern California, near Easter. Our friend was en route to or from somewhere and decided to give the dogs a break at a well known restaurant, rest stop, restroom, shady place and picnic area. The parking lot was filled. The grounds were oozed with families, men, women, children, chihuahuas, Charley's Aunt, they were all there.

The deerhounds got out of the RV, sighted a rabbit, and they were off. Their owner tried to call them off, but good luck with that. Calling deerhounds off a target will exercise your vocal cords and raise your frustration level, but that's all.

Soon the dogs returned, one of them proudly dangling a dead rabbit from his mouth. The performance was witnessed by shocked mothers and crying children. Our friend retrieved the rabbit and said, “I'd better take him to the vet.” Then she and her dogs hopped into their vehicle and drove away. Expeditiously, I might add.

Understandable. What was she going to say to a bunch of kids who just watched her dogs kill the Easter Bunny? “Sorry, kids, no eggs for you this year.” Or how about, “Eggs are bad for your cholesterol.”

Our friend and her dogs proceeded down the road leaving some very upset people behind. She was lucky. I understand they lynch people in some states when their dogs kill the Easter Bunny.

Copyright Ken Harris 2009