The View from Mattie’s Pillow

Warmer days here—up around zero. For those of you reading this in the Lower 48, that may not seem warm, but with the increasing sunlight, dry air, and low snow cover, it feels like spring is on its way. On campus, walking between buildings at lunch or between classes, people seem animated, smiling, holding doors open for each other in order to have a chance to say, ”Isn’t the weather great today? Isn’t the light amazing?”

In the corral, Mattie and Sam position themselves in the sun, dozing. This morning, Mattie stood with her head half lowered, while Sam curled up on the packed snow of his favorite rolling spot. Some birds, perhaps juncos, swooped long arcs in the air above us. The light spread across the snow, up the hill to the trunks of the spruce trees, and tangled in the red-gray twigs at the end of the birch branches, delicate looking, but waiting for the right mix of light and warmth to start sucking sap out to the buds like sugar water through a soda straw. Astonishingly fragile pale green leaves will unfurl from those dry-looking sticks one day in May, and we’ll be into the mad rush of summer.

But I get ahead of myself. Today, I’m heading out with brushes, mane and tail detangler, and a “waterless” shampoo to get their coats ready for shedding season. They look like long-legged bears, their coats are so long and thick. And I’ve been so caught up with work that I come home too tired and the late afternoon is still too dark to spend much time with them daily, except for the usual scratch on the neck and good visual once-over.

Today, too, I’ll go back to the seed catalog on line to look at the gorgeous photos of carrots, lettuce, tomatoes and the difficult things: eggplant, peppers, melons, and try to finalize my seed order so that I can start indoor planting soon. I remember that, last year as I started this blog, I was in the midst of my sabbatical and that my personal goal (as opposed to the professional) was to get a sense of how else I could spend my life other than the way I do at work. Here’s what I’m concluding: fewer meetings, fewer obligations other than ones I can concentrate my energies on to do well, more horse time, more time with my hands in dirt, more writing. The question is how to do this in a self-sustaining way, without fully “retiring.” I watch friends of mine who’ve retired in disgust at the intensity of their work life, but haven’t substituted anything else for it. This works out badly for them.

For now, I’ll juggle both, knowing that the academic calendar gives me freedom when I need it most for my “real” life—the months of May-August. And as the light grows stronger and lingers longer in the evening, I’ll have more time and energy (light equals energy after all) to prepare my semi-feral critters for all that I have planned for them this summer.

If you are on the East Coast—enjoy the snow before it melts. Send us some for our dog races and to shelter the roots of our plants as the frost line works its way down through our soil in the spring. When spring actually comes for you—crocuses and daffodils—we’ll still be basking in the dazzle of light reflecting back off snow. Send photos and poems!

Update:  I spent an hour with Sam, detangling his mane and tail.  The sun gleamed off the long hairs of his coat and he stood dozing while I worked.  After that, we did a little clicker work, training him to touch his red ball to the word “touch”.  We had done this with other objects before, so he picked it up quickly.  I wish I knew how to cue all the tricks he already knows, but I’m guessing the cues are rather confused for him at this point.  Sometimes I’m sure what looks at first like bad behavior is a trick he’s been cued to–but I may never know his history.

One more thing.  When I got out to the corral, I checked the water tank to see if it was low enough to clean out the scuzz that accumulates at the bottom: shavings, hay, a feather or two.  When I looked in the tank, there was a whole bird, a chickadee, perched nervously on the red plastic that joins the heating element to the cord on the outside of the tank.  He was just above the water line and he eyed me suspiciously as I peered over the edge. I could see that his tail feathers were wet and scraggly; he must have tried to drink and gotten wet and was now too heavy to fly up out of the high-sided tank.  I put the grooming tools down on the fence rail and reached in gently with my gloved hand to give him a boost.  He flew up high enough to get over the tank rim then perched on the stall divider on Mattie’s side.  She walked over with her nose down, sniffing him cautiously.  He flew up again, over  tank to Sam’s side, where he perched on the salt block and ruffled his feathers.  As I worked with Sam, I checked back on him from time to time, sitting there on the rust-colored salt in the sun.  The run-in shed faces south, so he was in sun with no breeze–the perfect place to dry out.  From time to time he would call out “Chick-a-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee” a hoarse call, perhaps warning other birds away from the treacherous water tank.  Finally, when I went to check again, he was gone, feathers dried, dignity restored.

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