Preparing to Sleep

Our farm has been changing dramatically over the past 4 weeks, each day moving a little closer to the reality of winter around the corner. Most of the fruit which is not residing in our freezer has fallen from the trees, and the walnut husks are hanging lonesome and bulbous as a windstorm pulled many leaves to the ground creating a multi-colored carpet everywhere I walk.

Readying for winter’s sleep is quite a glamorous affair for some trees on our farm–they are clothed in rich crimson and gold like the most alluring and ostentatious negligee. However the majority of tree leaves turn drab yellow or brown, as if donning a practical flannel nightgown or an oversized t-shirt without any pretense of grandeur. Even our Haflinger horses laze about, comfortable in their soft winter woolie coats and feathered slippers, happy with their gift of hay. I’m envious of their contentment though I prefer fluffy flannel myself.

This has not been a leisurely autumn for me, instead full of turbulence and fretfulness, too much work to do in too few hours,  rushing full force toward the eventual calm and quiet of winter. Like so many others, I’m ill at ease with this transition, as unready as a small child who resists the approach of bedtime, even when exhausted to the point of meltdown. It takes someone to quietly sit down with me to read a good bedtime story and to sing a soft hymn of lullaby. I seem to keep leaping up, eyes propped open, pushing on, thinking there are “miles to go before I sleep”.

The time to sleep will come, sooner than I think. Just as a storm brings the leaves to the ground, so shall I be laid to rest, to be restored when the time is right.

Maybe I should think about wearing that bright red nightie.

An Unusual Job Interview


Standing outside a non-descript door in a long dark windowless hallway of offices at the Stanford Medical Center, I took a deep breath and swallowed several times to clear my dry throat. I hoped I had found the correct office, as there was only a number– no nameplate to confirm who was inside.

I was about to meet a childhood hero, someone whose every book I’d read and every TV documentary I had watched. I knocked with what I hoped was the right combination of assertiveness (“I want to be here to talk with you and prove my interest”) and humility (“I hope this is convenient for you as I don’t want to intrude”). I heard a soft voice on the other side say “Come in” so I slowly opened the door.

It was a bit like going through the wardrobe to enter Narnia.  Bright sunlight streamed into the dark hallway as I stepped over the threshold. Squinting, I stepped inside and quickly shut the door behind me as I realized there were at least four birds flying about the room.  They were taking off and landing, hopping about feeding on bird seed on the office floor and on the window sill. The windows were flung wide open with a spring breeze rustling papers on the desk. The birds were very happy occupying the sparsely furnished room, which contained only one desk, two chairs and Dr. Jane Goodall.

She stood up and extended her hand to me, saying, quite unnecessarily, “Hello, I’m Jane” and offered me the other chair when I told her my name. She was slighter than she appeared when speaking up at a lectern, or on film. Sitting back down at her desk, she busied herself reading and marking her papers, seemingly occupied and not to be disturbed.  It was as if I was not there at all.

It was disorienting. In the middle of a bustling urban office complex containing nothing resembling plants or a natural environment, I had unexpectedly stepped into a bird sanctuary instead of sitting down for a job interview. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do or say. Jane didn’t really ever look directly at me, yet I was clearly being observed. So I waited, watching the birds making themselves at home in her office, and slowly feeling at home myself. I felt my tight muscles start to relax and I loosened my grip on the arms of the chair.

There was silence except for the twittering of the finches as they flew about our heads.

After awhile she spoke, her eyes still perusing papers: “It is the only way I can tolerate being here for any length of time. They keep me company. But don’t tell anyone; the people here would think this is rather unsanitary.”

I said the only thing I could think of: “I think it is magical.  It reminds me of home.”

Only then did she look at me. “Now tell me why you’d like to come work at Gombe…”

The next day I received a note from her letting me know I was accepted for the research assistantship. I had proven I could sit silently and expectantly, waiting for something, or perhaps nothing at all, to happen.  For a farm girl who never before traveled outside the United States, I was about to embark on an adventure far beyond the barnyard.


Listening to What the Ears Have to Say


I have an appreciation for social cues, both human and animal–those often nonverbal signals that are communicated through subtle means–in people, perhaps it is a raised eyebrow, a rapid blink, a tensing of the lips, a fidgeting foot.  In horses, it can be harder to read but their nonverbal language is there for all to see.  The herdmates and the human handler, with careful observation and interpretation, should not be surprised about “what is going to happen next.”  It is not a mystery.

I don’t consider Haflingers particularly subtle in their communication with each other or with humans. They can tend to have a “bull in a china shop” approach to life; this is not a breed that evolved particularly plagued with the existence of many predators in the Austrian Alps, so the need to blend into the background was minimal. So Haflingers tend to be “out there”: unafraid, bold, meeting one’s gaze, sometimes challenging.

I’ve found over the years that the best way to interpret a Haflinger’s emotions is by watching their ears, and to a lesser extent, their lips and tails. They usually have “poker face” eyes, deceptive at times in their depth, calmness and serenity. I tend to get lost in the beauty of their eyes and not pay attention to what the rest of the horse is saying. Watching them interact with each other, almost everything is said with their ears. A horse with a friendly approach has ears
forward, receptive, eager. If the horse being approached is welcoming, the ears are relaxed, sometimes as forward. Two good friends grooming or grazing together have swiveling, loose ears, often pointing toward each other, almost like a unique conversation between the four ears themselves. So when a Haflinger is happy to approach, or be approached by humans, the ears always say so.

Ears that are swiveling back, tensing and tight, or pinning are another story altogether. It is the clear signal of “get outta my way!”, or “you are not sharing this pile of hay with me” or “you may think you are a cute colt, but if you climb on me one more time…” Those ears can signal impatience “you are not getting my grain fast enough”, or “I’ve been standing here tied for too long!” A simple change in ear position can cause a group of horses to part like the Red Sea.

I have a mare who was orphaned at 3 days of age, and spent her early weeks with intensive handling by people, and then allowed to socialize with a patient older gelding until she was old enough to be among other weanlings. When she came to our farm at 6 months of age, she had not learned all the usual equine social cues of a mare herd, and though very astute at reading human gestures and behavior, took awhile to learn appropriate responses. When turned out with the herd, she was completely clueless–she’d approach the dominant alpha mare incorrectly, without proper submission, get herself bitten and kicked and was the bottom of the social heap for years, a lonesome little filly with few friends and very few social skills.

She had never learned submission with people either, and had to have many remedial lessons on her training path. Once she was a mature working mare, her relationship with people markedly improved as there was structure to her work and predictability for her, and after having her own foals, she picked up cues and signals that helped her keep her foal safe, though she has always been one of our most relaxed “do whatever you need to do” mothers when we handle her foals as she simply never learned that she needed to be concerned.

Over the years, as the herd has changed, this mare has become the alpha mare, largely by default and seniority, so I don’t believe she really trusts her position as “real”. She can tend to bully, and react too quickly out of her own insecurity about her inherited position. She is very skilled with her ears but she is also a master at the tail “whip” and the tensed upper lip–no teeth, just a slight wrinkling of the lip. The herd scatters when they see her face change.

The irony of it all is that now that she’s “on top” of the herd hierarchy, she is more lonely than when she was at the bottom. She is a whole lot less happy as she has few grooming partners any more. I really feel for her as she has created this for herself, but she would rather have power than friends right now. It is the sad choice she’s made.

I certainly see people like this at times in the world. Some are not at all attuned to social cues, blundering their way into situations without understanding the consequences and “blurting without thinking”. It takes lots of kicks and bites for them to learn how to read other people and behave appropriately. Sometimes they turn to bullying because it is communication that everyone understands and responds to, primarily by “getting out of their way”. Perhaps they are very lonely, insecure, and need friends but their need for power overcomes their need for support. I see it every day in the people I know.  I see it in me.

So I will continue “watching the ears”–both Haflinger and human. And continue to refine my own way of communicating so that I’m not a mystery to those around me, and hoping no one scatters when they see me coming…

There Must Be a Pony in Here Somewhere…


It’s manure spreading time at BriarCroft–time to recycle six months of accumulated Haflinger poop (plus shavings) back to the fields from where it originated. The fields soon will be too wet and mushy to run the manure spreader over without cutting deep ruts, so October is our window of opportunity to reduce the mountains of manure that have accumulated over the spring and summer so we can start “fresh” for the fall and winter. There is nothing quite so satisfying as making good use of what appears to the average citizen to be noxious organic material.

Au, contraire!

This poop is the best fertilizer in the world, because it is produced, with love and not much effort, by our Haflingers.

Scooping poop out of stalls is a therapeutic exercise in more ways than one and usually far more satisfying than pitching the figurative stuff
all day in other settings. There are a few Haflingers that are ‘pilers’—beautifully barn trained creatures that they are, leaving nice neat little collections tidily in one corner of the stall, one deposit on top of the other, so that when you are cleaning, you have only to remove 20 lbs. of manure in one forkful without having to do a thing to the rest of the stall except fluff the shavings. Then some Haflingers are of the ‘the more the merrier’ variety–leaving many small piles around the stall like so many Easter eggs to be found. It is more time consuming to clean, but satisfying as the stall looks so much better when you leave it than when you walked in. Lastly are the Haflinger ‘blenders’ whose stalls remind me somewhat of my children’s bedrooms on a very bad day. If you dare to open the door, you’ll find a whirlwind of everything mixed together, impossible to sort clean stuff from dirty stuff and the temptation is to just walk back out and close the door without even trying.

We pile our manure loads onto cement slab, and as the months go by there is greater challenge to accomplish the dumping of the load as the wheelbarrow must be pushed or pulled up the pile. Eventually one feels like Sisyphus attempting to roll the rock uphill only to have it roll back down again and have to start again. Manure piles do settle though, and shrink with the decomposition taking place, so it is possible to keep loading on top and not see a whole lot of change in the height of the hill over time. When the time comes for spreading, we start digging into the pile, revealing layers as if on an archaeological dig. The steam rises from the opened pile, and sometimes the heat is so great that I barely touch it comfortably with my bare hand. It steams in the manure spreader and as it flies out the back of the spreader onto the fields, it appears to be a great gaseous chemical concoction that we are throwing back to the grass (which of course it is!)

We are rewarded with the growing grass in the spring–indeed this is the ‘pony’ in this pile of poop–in fact many ponies! Brown smelly organic material returns back to the land to provide sweet green organic material for the next winter. It is a remarkably simple formula. We purchase no additional fertilizers, we buy little outside hay. The Haflingers provide for the fields, the fields provide for the Haflingers, then the Haflingers provide for the fields once again. Our mission, as we choose to accept it, is to get it back out to the fields, and when the grass is ready to harvest, bring it back in. Transformation of waste to nourishment all in one year’s time.  In this day and age, this is referred to as “sustainability”.  I call it good stewardship.

Can I say the same of the things I cast off as “worthless waste” in my own life? There are stinky, yucky, messy and ugly parts of myself that I wish I could throw away, flush and never see again.   Is it possible that I should be figuratively gathering it up, to haul off and pile up to decompose all on its own, in the fervent hope it will be somehow transformed into something useful?

Instead I tend to let the piles accumulate around me in my daily life.  Rather than shoveling into a transforming clean-up, I remain messy too much of the time.

So perhaps I better start looking for the “pony” buried deep in my own pile . I know he’s in there just waiting to be found.  I just have to get dirty and start digging…


Under the Owl Moon


stretch long
under full moonlight
paths streaked
in semigloss

lies silent
evening calm spreads
loft to stall
in advancing

branches move
against crisp sky
as wings
swish softly

cadenced duet
calling the question:
nocturnal overture
Who? again

from treetops
barn roof rafters
echoing soliloquy
of the lost

Autumn Unleashed

(after the storm)


Dawn shrouded webs
droop heavy
dripping, clinging sticky
in branches

Swooping bird flock,
airborne avian amoeba,
enfolding east
turning west
heading south,

Wind whipped maples,
brittle branches
setting free
leaves in fiery flight,
soaring sinking

Fallen fruit,
bruised in patient
surrender to earth,
in grassy lap

A Febrile Ceasefire


Flu viruses rank up there with mosquitoes, rats, and slugs as creatures of questionable value to the Planet Earth.    I realize there is a reason for all things at all times, but how I managed to invite one of these little RNA stuffed darlings  into my nasopharynx is a mystery.  I was washing my hands to the point of being red and raw and wearing a N100 mask when in contact with hundreds of coughing feverish patients.  It still happened.  It outsmarted sanitizer, respiratory barriers, and social distancing.  So now on day three of fever and general misery, I bow in homage to the virus that lays millions low.  Misery does not love company.

Viruses do tend to have an equalizing effect on society.  They are no respecters of social status –one nose and set of lungs is as good as another.  However, the fact that thousands of deaths occur annually due to these little creatures is significant.  You’d think a virus would know better than to kill its own host, but some hosts can’t take the onslaught of cytokines and inflammatory response.   It is still pre-H1N1 vaccine in most parts of the world, and some of the antiviral medications have little effect, so it becomes an outright virus vs. host battle.  That’s what it feels like: a Lord of the Rings-Orks against the Elves and the Dwarves-onslaught happening in every muscle of my body.  I’d forgotten about some of those muscles.  Some haven’t made themselves known for decades, probably not since my last influenza, or when I tried taking a yoga class in my twenties.

So my only physiological response is fever.  This isn’t necessarily a bad response, as some studies suggest that a hot host is not a hospitable host to many viruses.  We’re not nearly as tolerant of fevers as we used to be.  A recent study has shown that giving a dose of Tylenol to children before or after their routine immunizations, to help decrease pain and fever, actually blunts the immune response so they don’t make as much antibody, which is the whole point of the vaccination to begin with.  So there may actually be need for fever in certain circumstances.  In my lovely 50’s era baby book, my mother noted in 1955 that my 6 month shot was a “good take” because I spiked a 104 degree fever, signaling a good immune response to the vaccine.  That was one way the doctors calmed down nervous mothers about brand new vaccines.  Fever is a “good” sign.  Nowadays, that kind of fever after a vaccination would be enough for a trip to the ER and potentially a law suit.

If there is anything I’ve learned in 30 years of doctoring, it’s that the pathogens continue to be smarter than modern medicine no matter what weapons, chemical or otherwise, we come up with next to arm ourselves.  Thankfully, we have immune systems that are remarkably effective for most things, but the fight required to win the war with a virus is not for the faint hearted.  It is a down and dirty trench and barbed wire battle field.

Just right now, it feels like time for a ceasefire…

Watching Over the Fire


Over the course of a summer, we accumulate a brush pile in our attempts to clear/clean various parts of the pasture and woods, trying to stay one step ahead of encroaching blackberry vines and other less than welcome growing things.  Hauling the brush to the brush pile is a whole job in itself, and throwing the stuff on the pile gets more difficult as it grows taller and wider.  Soon we will light our seasonal bonfire, reducing the accumulation to ashes, and wait to start the process again next summer.

There are now legal restrictions on how large a fire can be without a special permit, otherwise there is a “friendly” visit from the fire district volunteers and a hefty fine to pay.  Back on the farm of my youth, my father would build several huge brush piles over the course of the summer, and would burn them simultaneously, taking all day and often part of the night to supervise the fires and make sure they did not stray beyond their intended boundaries. This was a highly anticipated autumn event for us children, as we would help to “feed” the fire and help tend its borders, staying up late with our father until he felt it was safe to return to the house.

There is something very primeval about a fire in the open.  There is the knowledge it can rage out of control through flying embers and sparks. The heat can be literally blistering.  It also is protective against the cold of autumn nights and we huddle as near as we can without feeling we will catch on fire as well.

Thirty years ago I remember flying over the continent of Africa from Europe at night, on my way to Tanzania, and throughout the night I would spot fires on the ground, the site of remote villages using the fire as protection and safety where no electricity existed nor would exist for decades to come.

Fire is not always a source of solace and warmth.  Government health officials compare the initial start of a pandemic influenza virus as a “spark” that could ignite an uncontrolled burn if not monitored and stamped out immediately.   This comparison makes sense as one watches the sparks fly from a bonfire, sometimes dissipating in the air, and other times landing and lighting new fires.  It can be beyond our ability to control in a flash, and we rush to catch up with effective vaccines and medications months afterward.

There are always fires in our lives, sometimes leaving behind devastation and ruin, sometimes refining and cleaning up our messes.  Like the brush pile, we need to discard much in our lives that obstruct and bar our progress, or that which has been a source of pain and suffering.  Gathering it up, piling it high and lighting it is sometimes the only way to be free of it.  Yet that fire needs monitoring, or it will burn out of control and all will end up unrecognizable.  There is a fine line between leaving horrific scars and leaving things clean and smooth and open.

So I watch over the embers until they die, just as my father once did.  Somehow, that alone keeps me warm.

Illuminated Grief

Angel of Grief--Stanford University
Angel of Grief–Stanford University
Angel of Grief--Stanford University
Angel of Grief–Stanford University

The receding October moon reluctantly rose,
Withdrawing from the full globe of a few nights before.
I drive a night darkened country road, white lines sweeping past,
Aware of advancing frost in the evening haze,
Anxious to return home to fireplace light.

Nearing a familiar corner, a stop sign loomed,
To the right, a rural cemetery sits silently expectant.
Open iron gates and tenebrous headstones,
In the middle path, incongruous, car headlights beam bright.
I slowed, thinking: lovers or vandals would want inky cover of night.
Instead, these lights focus on a lone figure,
Kneeling graveside, one hand rests heavily on a stone, head bowed in prayer.
A stark moment of solitary sorrow, invisible grieving  of the heart
Illuminated in twin beams.

A benediction of mourning;  light pierces the blackness,
Gentle fingertips trace the engraved letters of a beloved name.
An uneasy witness, I withdraw from the touch
And drive on into the night, struggling to see through a thickening mist.

Sacred Scalp


He was stealing from me.  The first time I saw just a flash of gray ringed tail disappearing into the autumn night mist as I opened the back door to pour kibble into the empty cat dish on the porch.  Another stray cat among many who visit the farm.  A few stay to become “our” cats.

He did stay over the past year, keeping a distance in the shadows under the trees. A gray tabby with white nose and bib, serious yet skittish, would watch me as I moved about feeding dogs, cats, birds, horses. He would creep to the cat dish only when the others drifted away.

There was something in the way he held his head.  A floppy forward ear betrayed hidden wounds I could not approach close enough to see. I startled him one day as he ate his fill at the dish. He ran away, the back of his head looking like he wore a red cap.  His back scalp was completely missing from forehead to neck, not oozing or actively bleeding, so not something new.

This was a nearly mortal injury from a too close encounter with a coyote, or bald eagle or bobcat—his attacker only got away with part of him.

This cat was fighting for survival through his trauma and pain, his tissue raw, still trying to heal.  He had chosen to live.

My first inclination was to trap him, to put him humanely to sleep to end what must be obvious suffering.  In truth, I wanted to end my distress at seeing him every day.  My mind’s eye would envision the florid flesh even as he hunkered invisible in the shadowlands of the blackberry thicket.  Yet his disfigurement did not keep him from eating well or keeping clean his pristine fur.

As much as I wanted to look away, to not confront his mutilation, I began greeting him from a distance, honoring his maimed courage, through the icy blasts of winter, and four foot snow, through cleansing spring rains and humid summer heat with sticky flies.  Still his scar never quite healed, a sanguine reminder of mortality.

I never will stroke that silky fur, or feel his burly purr,  because I think he still knows how.

But I feed him his daily fill, as he feeds my need to recall:

Each breath he takes is sacred air, no matter how obvious or hidden may be his wounds, nor how much, because he lives,  he bleeds deep red.