Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Deer Rump in Headlights

The view south from our driveway.
Last night, after watching "The Black Swan" at the movie theater and dinner and drinks downtown with friends, Rich & I were heading home. We're just over five miles from town and the road we take, Route 130, is the main highway south out of town. Once past town, the road winds past Lake Charleston, down and up a rather steep hill, and then gently curves southward. We frequently see the evidence of deer-car encounters along this stretch of highway. It's really the worst place to encounter a deer: there's quite a bit of traffic, generally going at least 55 mph, there are deep woods on either side of the road, or the Embarrass River or steep shoulders. We generally keep a close eye out for deer at night. Since I'm usually in the passenger seat, I always think it's my job to be deer lookout, mostly looking for eyes on the side of the road. So last night, we're cruising home. It's been a fantastic night out. As we near the bottom of the hill, with the entrance to Lake Charleston park on our left my brain realized what my eyes are seeing in the road: one deer just off the road to our right, and one very large doe right in our lane. I screamed, "oh God! Deer!" and Rich very calmly swerved the car to the left (into the oncoming lane) and around the deer. It was then that we saw several other deer on the left side of the road, just getting ready to cross it. We were going 54 mph, and luckily there was no ice on the road, no cars behind us and especially lucky that there were no cars in the oncoming lane of traffic. For the five minutes it took us to complete our trip home, I was pretty shaken. We've seen deer just off the road frequently, but that was the first time we saw them directly in the road. It was the eyes of the deer that had finished crossing the road that I saw first. I couldn't make out what was in the road, since our headlights were shining on the rump of the deer. Thank goodness Rich is such a calm and good driver. Rich said it may be inevitable that we hit a deer one day on one of those trips in or out of town. There is just too much traffic and too many deer in that little narrow stretch of road. Our friend, Sherry, saw a narrow miss one morning between a buck and an SUV on that same stretch. If we do hit a deer, all we can hope is that we don't get hurt. Of course, if we do hit a deer, and don't get hurt, I guess we'd have some venison for the taking...

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas Day, or The Day Joe Realized What Playing Possum Means

Happy Holidays from Persimmon Acres!
 Well, we had a White Christmas indeed! About 4 inches of champaign powder fell on Christmas Eve, and all day on Christmas, a very light and lovely snow fell. And although Rich & I missed our families, I have to say, this may have been the happiest Christmas yet! After a great breakfast (pancakes, bacon, sausage, eggs & mimosas!) we leisurely opened presents. The dogs opened their presents. At some point, just after noon, I took Kerouac & Happy outside. In general, Kerouac is always on leash because he tends to get to chasing something and frankly, I can't keep up, and on the first Sunday we lived here, he wandered off into a cornfield, and after two hours of frantic looking, we finally saw him slowly sauntering down the road back home... It was terrifying for me, so I keep him on leash for my own sanity. But it was Christmas Day, and there was fresh snow on the ground, and I wanted to see him running around. So these two dogs were running around, enjoying the snow, doing their business. I saw Happy get into predator mode: tail straight out, front legs down, and then saw him leap onto something. I see both him and Kerouac do this move quite a lot, and generally, they're after moles or mice, so I wasn't too worried. I casually called him to me, and turned to see him facing off with something that was almost the same size as he is. Kerouac was preoccupied, so I yelled at Happy, who ran off, but that unfortunately drew Kerouac's attention. And before I could stop him, he was on the creature. In the few seconds' between my seeing Happy pounce and yelling at him, I realized that the creature was the possum we've been seeing during the days. I know they're supposedly nocturnal creatures, but I guess the lure of our compost pile must be too much for it... I picked up a log, thinking I'll need it to pry Kerouac off of the damn thing. Or to beat it, if it attacks Kerouac. As I approached, Kerouac was standing over the possum, with his face between the possum's ears. I walked up to him, and was able to pull Kerouac off of the animal, who just lay there.

Now, I have never been this close to a possum before. When I lived in Chicago, we had a momma possum who lived in the tree outside our sunroom, and we would watch her carry her youngsters in her pouch, and this fall we would see an even larger possum out by the apple tree, gorging itself as the sun set. But pulling your dog off of one was an odd experience. And I was yelling, imaging the now-urgent need to take Kerouac to the vet emergency room, and that this lovely Christmas Day was now over. But after a quick inspection, I realized Kerouac was unscathed. Amazing. The possum, who was still lying at my feet, appeared dead. It was frozen on the ground, eyes open but unmoving, teeth bared. And what teeth! His mouth was about the same size as Kerouac's head (about five inches long) but full of some really sharp and nasty-looking teeth. How neither he nor Happy had been bit is amazing. I figured they must have surprised it in it's post-compost-eating haze and shocked it to death. And I knew it was dead, because it certainly wasn't moving. I took Kerouac and Happy inside, and grabbed my camera and went back outside. The possum hadn't moved and I took the above picture. (I decided I would wait a few more minutes to get a closer picture, and one of it's teeth when I knew for sure it was dead.) I went inside and told Rich about our adventures. The dogs were inspected again (nothing wrong with either of them) and given treats, and when we looked out the Florida Room door, we saw the possum had moved. It was standing a few feet from where I last saw it, standing as if completely dazed, but definitely alive. I told Rich that I was certain it was dead. He asked me if I'd ever heard of the phrase playing possum, and I realized I had, and had just seen it for real!

So one of the inadvertent gifts I received this Christmas was a nice little lesson courtesy of nature. I'm certain both dogs were lucky they surprised that possum, and that the possum was full with it's recent meal. And it makes (hopefully) a great story.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Home for the Holidays

When Rich & I were making our winter plans, we both assumed we'd be heading to Denver for Christmas. In the end, though, we will be spending Christmas at home here in Charleston. And while I'm going to miss seeing my family, I am really looking forward to our first country Christmas! The forecast is calling for a big snow on Friday, so we should have a white Christmas. We are hoping to have our traditional mussels dinner on Christmas Eve. It will happen if we can find mussels... It's one of the things we realize we've taken for granted: the availability of certain food items. The first thing we noticed lacking in the local grocery stores was lamb. They carry it sometimes, but always frozen, never fresh. The farm at the end of our road has a herd of sheep and goats, and we've wondered about where they go when their time is up... Just last week, though, we finally found some local lamb. Unfortunately, we have to drive 50 minutes up to Champaign for it. Raised in El Paso, Illinois, and halal, (and cheap) it's worth the drive. Last night, I made lamb kleftiko, which is lamb and peas baked in parchment paper. It was delicious. We also ate the barrel-aged feta and fresh kalamata olives we bought at World Harvest up in Champaign, too. And today, Rich is hunting for mussels. We are thinking we may have to drive back up to Champaign for them. We're committed to these little crustaceans for our Christmas Eve meal!
The picture above was taken last month. The green is all gone. It's a view of of our house from the woods. In the spring, I hope to make this view a common one for visitors, as I am hoping to turn an area in the woods into a nice, cool seating area. Right now, when I walk the yard with the dogs, I am doing a lot of dreaming. Some planning, but mostly dreaming... imagining what will be growing where, trying to picture the yard alive once again. Often, my thoughts are rather pastoral when thinking about the yard, the gardens, the trees and animals. I know the reality will be quite different. It is during these short, quiet days, that I am girding myself up for the challenge this yard will present.
If we find  mussels, I will let you all know how they were (perhaps I will steam them in some white wine, saffron and cream). Or, we'll find a new tradition for our Christmas Eve. I am excited to spend Christmas here, this year, and hope it is merry & bright for everyone!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Early for the Party

On Thursday, the mailman asked me if these were our cows.  I hadn't seen them earlier, but there they were, hanging out on the road and in the soybean field to the west of our house. I didn't know whose cows they were, but kind of figured perhaps a neighboring farmer might let them winter on these fields...

A few hours later, as Rich & I were working to get the final touches ready for our first annual Christmas Cocktail Party, I looked out the kitchen window and saw a baker's dozen of early visitors: a herd of diary cows.  They were now in the cornfield directly west of our house, looking for food as the snow steadily fell, and the roads turned
more and more into ice...

Although we had a lot to do, neither one of us had ever had a herd of cows wandering in our yard. And they were now in the front yard (picture here on the right...) They walked through the front yard, and as Rich stood on the porch taking pictures, they stopped to watch him, and approached our entrance... I was worried they might just come on up the steps of the porch and try to come in. They definitely had a collective look that said, "are you going to feed us?" When they realized we were just cow-tourists and had no food, they resumed their search. They walked back to the barn, where for a while they huddled in what has probably at some time in its past held cows... There was no food there, but they did spend quite a while in there (out of the wind and snow, for sure) before exploring the rest of the barn and then the firepit, and one cow even explored the orange extension cord the lights on the barn are plugged into... I was worried she'd snap it in half, but she picked it up and then dropped it. The cows then slowly, and in a very neat line, walked through the rest of the front yard, and down the road to our neighbor, Elizabeth's yard. They hung around the block all night, and we haven't seen them since.

 The party went on as scheduled, and we did manage to get everything ready. I was a little worried as the cows approached the house, though, that they could smell what I was making: beef enchiladas...

We figure this won't be the last time a herd of cows wanders into our yard, but I really think it's a novelty I won't mind (unless they trample my garden...)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Dodged It!

It's Thursday morning, and it looks like we missed out on the worst of the storm. The road and our driveway look like they've been spray-painted white. Last night, Rich & I took the dogs out during a lull in the sleet, the lights of Charleston were orange to the northwest (it's at night that those seven miles to town feel a real distance) and we could hear the cows at the end of our road mowing, first low, and then with more urgency. We could also hear the howling of coyotes. It is such a singular sound, pure animal. Mournful. Chiquita, the chihuahua-dachshund mix went in with Rich, leaving me with the two boy-dogs. They were mostly just playing in the snow, and I was enjoying the sound of the rain hitting the ground. I imagined I could hear it freezing in that first second it hit. I was enjoying looking at the colored Christmas lights, barely moving in the minimal breeze when all three of us heard it, at the end of our driveway: three insistent little yips. Like a puppy, begging to play. Kerouac & Happy, the boy-dogs, both froze, ears up, tails straight, and then turned and ran to the door. I followed, obediently. I didn't have the flashlight, but knew there was at least one coyote there, looking for an easy meal.

Monday night we had all three dogs out, and had been out for a few minutes, when Rich heard, from behind him, the rustling of a large animal running away from us, back into the brush towards the pond. It scared him (I didn't hear it, unfortunately.) He figured that a deer must have been grazing right where the lawn meets the woods, and frozen when the five us came oh-so-loudly out the door, only able to make its getaway when we turned away from it. We both know that deer are the largest mammals around, but I know that I often think of bear (you can't take the Colorado out of me so easily!). In the morning I went out and easily found the prints of a deer, giving Rich's version of the story reality. It is amazing to me that all of this wildlife action occurs within the space of our yard! We can walk into the woods, following very active deer trails, leading us to the pond and to Hurricane Creek (and even over it). And beyond mammals, there are the birds... This morning while taking the dogs around for their morning exercise, there were about a dozen birds (two cardinals and the rest black birds of some kind) darting in and out of the barren pine trees and the bushes along the front porch. They seemed to be unconcerned by the dogs. I'm sure I'll talk a lot about the birds. They are one of the joys of living here in the country. Thanks for reading, and if you're around Hutton Township tonight, stop on in for a cocktail!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

And suddenly, it's winter!

I was in town this morning and a woman told me that all this snow we've had is so unusual this early in the season. Since this is my first winter here in Charleston, Illinois, I have nothing to compare it with. This past Saturday, Rich & I ran into our neighbors down at the Rural King. They asked us if we were ready to get snowed in. The forecast was calling for less than an inch of snow, but with a lot of wind. Both of us thought back to what that kind of storm would have been like in Denver, and thought our neighbors were exaggerating. The storm that came was nothing like we expected: almost 24 solid hours of windblown snow. And while it did snow more than predicted, it didn't snow much (about 3" fell). Sunday night as we lay down for bed, the house was shaking in the gusts out of the north, the windows howling, the trees bending. It was quite frightening. In the morning we discovered that had someone not plowed the road, we would, indeed, have been stuck. The drifts across the road were sporadic, but where they were stood at least three feet tall. Two large pieces of tin from the barn's roof were lying in the yard. Branches thicker than my legs had been snapped off trees. And there were patches of bare grass and dry cement on our front porch. Wow. So now, my perspective of winter has changed. And so quickly! Tonight, the weather service is predicting snow followed by freezing rain and sleet followed by more snow tomorrow. It sounds like a nasty mix of weather to me, but am fascinated to see how it turns out. If it yields more beautiful pictures like the one here I took of the barn yesterday morning, I'll be happy.
A little while ago, I took one of the dogs out with me to pick up the mail. There is no wind blowing. The clouds seem static. The only sounds were our feet in the snow and crunching the ice. To be able to experience such wondrous silence while picking up the mail at the end of the driveway is a welcome treat!
By the way, welcome to my blog. I know some of you have been asking me to get this going, so you can keep track of my transition from city boy to farmer... Herein I hope to document my successes and failures. The beauty of country living and some of the crap. (One of them is dealing with satellite internet, that keeps shutting off...) Let me know what you think! I'd love to know folks are reading!