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On The Trail

Holiday musing

The patriotic summer holiday is here, flags are proudly waving to passersby and, yes, my wheels are spinning out of control.

So let’s begin with those tall browning hayfields you’ve probably noticed in your travels. If they seem odd, well, they are — the result of prolonged wet weather we’ve endured, preventing what farmers call first cut, a hay harvest that should have occurred weeks ago under normal weather, which we haven’t enjoyed. Just the other day my brother-in-law, a retired professor enjoying an idyllic existence on his gentlemen’s farm in Maine, said the month of June was the wettest on record since 1871. So, no Agnes, it’s not your haywire geriatric imagination, or dementia creeping in. It has been unusually wet. In fact, just today that familiar scent of summer mold gave me a back-hander as I walked through my dining room. That’s what you get in an old house with extended humidity like this. Even with the bulkhead open wide, windows, too, at night with fans spinning, you can’t avoid that musty odor in downstairs rooms that aren’t air-conditioned. Which reminds me, I noticed something odd Wednesday morning on my daily walk with the dogs through Sunken Meadow. The Green River was flowing a filthy brown, rare indeed. Usually when roiled, it runs a thin milky green, tinted by fine gray clay particles, thus, I suppose, its name. Not so on overcast Wednesday morning. Hmmm? Can’t remember that color ever before. Don’t ask. No clue. Just one of them things, I guess: a mystery.

But back to the hayfields I have watched turn brown on daily rambles through chest-high cover with rambunctious dogs. Oh, how the dogs love that tall, dense mix of orchard grass, red and white clover, tall timothy, and tiny white wildflowers standing high and straight, a combination which produced the subtlest, most pleasing aroma for weeks. Now some of the red-clover flowers have rotted to a drab dark brown, not what I’m used to seeing around my birthday. The light Great Plains brown you see from the road is matured orchard grass, which has gone by and lost most of its nutritional value (not to mention its healthy green hue), now ready to deposit seeds from drooping pods in the dense, moist air. Soon high pressure and a good stiff wind following bright, hot sun will send those seeds asunder to sprout anew. Meanwhile, the green timothy pods have formed and also stand erect and fertile, which I am not accustomed to seeing this time of year, when typically all fields have been scalped and regrowth is under way; same with the clover, which I also think of more as a summer grass. I assume both of these local fodders take longer to mature than the orchard-grass staple of first cut. This year the summer grasses will be mature for first cut, not what the doctor ordered for farmers, trust me.

On the other hand, the tall dense hayfields are great for wildlife and field birds, even turkeys. In fact, I’m surprised the dogs haven’t yet kicked out the doe and twin fawns I have seen signs of for weeks. I know they’re there, and they surely know we pass through daily yet know how to stay out of our way, their prints announcing they’re lurking. Sooner or later I’ll get a glimpse as I always do, hopefully before the lambs lose their spots.

I love bumping into little spotted fawns. Take for instance the buck that’s still roaming the Meadows. I have known his track for three years and crossed it often, having watched him grow from a suckling, spotted babe. Recently a colleague who owns an adjacent farm told me his father and uncle had been seeing a big deer near their barn. I told him it was almost certainly the buck I’ve been watching for three years, his track easily identifiable by its exaggerated splayed V that you can’t miss. The last I saw of that deer a couple weeks ago he was roaming with a yearling buck while the does they traveled with in winter and spring were tending their young in seclusion. A few days later, the man I call Big Boiczyk came to work excited to inform me he had seen the wide V track in his tilled croplands. It didn’t surprise me. I saw that deer as a 3- or 4-pointer two years ago, a 6- or 7-pointer last fall and expect it will sport eight or 10 points if he makes it to autumn this year. Will I kill him? No. If hungry? Yes. Though capable, I have nothing to prove, and won’t be drawn into that silly game of the insecure.

As for turkeys, well, as suspected, spring was a brutal nesting season. Maybe some people are seeing hens with poults. Not me. Down in the flatlands I’ve watched two hens, neither of which are with young. I saw those two birds often within a half-mile of each other on my daily travels; and I still see one of them regularly, every other day or so, feeding alone through a scalped, green hayfield and the infant cornfield t’other side the road. The other one down by the river is dead, killed by a predator. Finally, after watching my dogs roll in that bird’s feathery remains at two sites and carrying bits and pieces a short distance for more than a week, Chub-Chub and Lily finally swallowed the last wet feathers and legs with no ill effects I can detect. I’ve asked and there has been no sign of broods on the Big Boiczyk’s acreage, either. Just one of those years, I guess. But don’t toss and turn in your sleep over spring mortality. You can rest assured that there are more than enough turkeys around to sustain a healthy future flock. Who knows? Maybe the flock needed a year like this to thin it out a bit. Old Mother Nature has a way of managing her kingdom much more efficiently than human societies governed by corrupt leaders who do their best to disrupt just, natural order purely for selfish reasons.

That reminds me. What’s with all the white clover invading my yard, anyway? I don’t recall ever before seeing it. It’s everywhere, pervasive. Or is that invasive? Who cares? My wife mentioned it to me as something new, and since then my neighbor called and, unprovoked, mentioned to me that his lawn’s full of it. But it gets better. Perhaps the clover’s not just a neighborhood phenomenon. My aforementioned Maine brother-in-law lives six hours away and he has it too and new. Retired, learned and into such things in a big way, he has no explanation. My guess is that he soon will have a theory, though. Either that or maybe someone local will chime in. Could it have anything to do with the return of honey bees? Global warming? The rain? An occurrence last fall? Fukushima? The Gulf spill? I’d love to know, and apparently I’m not alone. Not that white clover’s a bad thing. I love it, vividly recall the school fields on both sides of my childhood South Deerfield homes filled with it, oh so fragrant. Foraging critters, wild and domestic, like it, too — turkeys and chickens, rabbits and deer. Mice, too, I discovered last week when I passed one chowing down while mowing the lawn along the wide opening into my barn’s cellar.

Before I go, a quick reflection from last week’s column about turning 60. After opining that I would have “grown up” sooner had I jilted softball in the 1980’s and early 90’s, I dreaded that I may have been insulting special people I met on the small diamond, folks whose friendship I greatly value. Well, at least some of them understood my point and didn’t take it personally. Among the myriad feedback I received was a heartfelt birthday card from the wife of a man I played softball against in Buckland, now retired and enjoying hilltown-farm nirvana, also an impromptu visit from another couple I met through softball, they delivering a book and two birthday cards. The visitors are sophisticated teachers, no less, another lot I don’t hesitate to publicly harangue. Apparently, they know my criticism is not aimed at them. How could they not? I once told the lady I wanted her to teach my grandchildren to read and write, and I meant it. That’s what she did — taught lucky kids to read and especially write. And now so does her longtime partner, a former college history professor and softball teammate of mine. They now work as a team, collaborating to teach teachers, a novel idea, at least the good ones who don’t know it all and are willing to listen.

Of course, I suspect that anyone who tried would have no trouble assembling a gang of my former teachers who’d identify me as a poor listener. All I can say in defense of myself is that even as a boy I think I had a good ear and knew who was and wasn’t worth listening to. Sadly, the latter far outnumbered the former and probably still do, a great reason I chose the autodidactic route I still travel.

I have an idea that my professorial visitors would understand, and so would my retired brother-in-law smartly living off the grid in Maine, himself a respected full professor for some 40 years. We often talk about education in front of a convivial holiday fire, and he in his gentle, diplomatic way bemoans the influx of adjunct professors and the demise of critical thinking on today’s campuses. Some praise these contemporary college programs and degrees as the path to unity and harmony, freedom and justice and success. Then again there are those like my friend Doc, who said out in my driveway before departing Sunday: “Don’t you know that thinkers are dangerous?”

Yes, I suppose they are, but not nearly as horrifying as the scarcity of thinkers preferred by corporate America and right-wing demagogues.

Recorder sports editor Gary Sanderson is a longtime member of the outdoor-writers associations of America and New England. Blog: www.tavernfare.com. Email: gary@oldtavernfarm.com.

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