NOTE: I wrote this blog in 2015, four years ago, but the similar conditions this spring—unusual rains—prompted me to slip back into this memory, still relevant. So far in 2019, our heaviest rains were in May, though this essay speaks of heavy rains in June. And just as in 2015, thistles are everywhere. I must also note that we now only have one elderly Westie, Toby; Cosmo died in February. Toby, mostly deaf, no longer has any enthusiasm for catching voles, though he still trots a few steps after rabbits. And several times lately, when we see the redwing blackbirds chasing a bigger bird, it has been a vulture!
The Writer: Watching Nature Operate
All there is to thinking is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t visible.
–Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It
Walking the dogs, we noticed that a tall cedar tree planted in 1981 has been girdled, probably by voles chomping under the snow last winter, or rabbits in spring.
No, I didn’t mean “moles,” the mouse-like critters often blamed for damage they don’t do.
A mole’s diet is carnivorous; they eat worms, grubs and adult insects, not plants. The plant-killing culprits are voles, those mostly herbivorous rodents which feed on grasses, herbaceous plants, bulbs and tubers, as well as the bark and roots of trees. They also make extensive tunnels and pathways through tall grass—and the moles may run along them, causing part of this confusion.
I cursed and threatened revenge on the voles, but found no way acceptable to me. I don’t want to use poison, since it would kill more than the voles, so our best anti-vole devices are the two West Highland White Terriers. Unfortunately, they are more excitable than efficient, so they only catch one or two voles a week out of the thousands—or millions—living and tunneling under our feet.
A girdled tree is a dead tree. I said, “What can we do?”
Jerry said with a shrug, “Let Nature take her course.”
That phrase stuck in my mind, causing me to pay particular attention throughout spring and summer to the ways in which Nature takes her course around the ranch. An important part of a writer’s job is observation, so I often noted in my journals how Nature behaved in ways I might otherwise have overlooked.
One day, for example, Cosmo emerged from the windbreak walking carefully, with his mouth half-open. Concerned that he might be hurt, I rushed over to him. He looked up at me, and then lowered his chin and gently set a baby robin on the grass. The bird was unhurt, and not quite fully fledged. Probably it had been practicing flying and fell to earth. Overhead, a pair of robins screeched and fluttered, and the baby in my hands cheeped and struggled. We soon spotted a nest in the doomed tree that the voles or rabbits had girdled. Instead of putting the bird back on the ground, I climbed the tree and tucked it into the nest. I’d interfered with nature. The next day there was no sign of the parent pair or the young one, so we don’t know how the story ended. A lot of baby robins must land in the grass while they practice, and yet we seem to have plenty of the birds, so some must survive. And we’ll leave the condemned tree standing as long as we can, to shelter more nests.
June brought heavy rains and flooding along the usually dry gullies. The redwinged blackbirds nest in groups along watercourses, weaving grasses and moss into a tight bowl tied to the surrounding cattails or willow bushes. Each nest is lined with mud, and may be as high as 14 feet above the water—or as low as three inches. I worried that the nests and chicks had been drowned, but didn’t want to slog into the deep mud and piles of debris to search. After a few days, the redwings seemed as busy as ever, but I didn’t know if they were feeding survivors or building new nests.
After each rain, clumps of thistles began to sprout and bloom everywhere in the pastures and around the yards, from seeds brought in by the flood. We don’t want to poison unwanted weeds, but we don’t want thistles spreading, either, so Jerry hooked his mulching mower behind the tractor and started chopping. He was finishing a patch near the corrals when a duck flew out of the tangle of weeds almost in front of the tractor tire. He drove away and then cautiously explored on foot until he found the nest: eggs tucked deep among the stems of sturdy amaranth and thistles. He steered wide around that patch, leaving the weeds tall. My lessee turned cattle into the small pasture. Grazing the grass shorter now cuts down on the danger of fire from the weeds as they dry in the fall. Also, some of these weeds are only attractive forage for cattle when they are young and green; if they’re too dry the cows won’t eat them.
One day we got two inches of rain in about an hour, and the gully streams of water and debris swept through the nest area. For three days the muddy mess trickled through the corrals. We didn’t want to disturb the duck if she’d survived, but we were afraid the eggs had been washed away. From our dining room windows, we could watch the cows tromping and grazing close to the nest location, so we decided the duck must be gone.
“I’ll show you where the nest was,” Jerry said, as we drove past one day. He parked well away from it and we walked carefully but neither of us could find it.
“Gone,” we concluded. As I reached for the pickup’s door handle, the duck squawked and flapped up beside me, inches from a back tire. There was the nest, intact. Jerry backed the pickup away very carefully.
One day my lessee came on his four-wheeler and his son brought a pickup and 40-foot trailer. They unloaded twenty or thirty head of cattle and drove them through the duck’s neighborhood into an adjoining pasture. Then they rounded up the remaining cows and chased them through the gate beside the duck’s nest. Watching from our house, holding our breath, we both expected the duck to fly up out of the stampede, but saw nothing.
Surely this time she was gone.
The next day, we ventured into the area again. We tiptoed close, and saw the duck secure on her nest, bright eyes watching us. Nature’s choice was taking care of that duck.
What does the duck have to do with writing?
She had determination, for one thing. She did not quit when the equivalents of tsunami, earthquakes and floods roared over her. She hunkered down and stayed with her job, hatching those eggs.
Writers need to be just as determined—not necessarily to succeed, or to get rich, but to keep writing. My routine of observation was reminding to notice more about the nature around me than the familiar ranch scenes of calves, grass growing, and fences falling down. If I’d concentrated on the things I usually noticed, I’d have missed a great deal that I might write about. Few writers can predict in advance what scrutiny might be useful.
During the summer, several generations of baby rabbits discovered that the tires my father piled around the windbreak trees he planted in his yard make wonderful hiding places. About the time they get out on their own to forage, the bunnies discover that they can stroll into a tire as if it were a burrow to be sheltered from the snow, rain and wind. Knowing this, we try to keep our dogs away from the tires.
Our Westie Cosmo forgets many of the things we’ve tried to teach him, but he either remembers or rediscovers the bunnies’ hiding places every year. Inevitably, we’ll get absorbed in a conversation and then hear excited yips and discover the dogs have a rabbit caught inside the tire.
Both dogs will shove their heads inside a tire, and then move toward each other, trapping the rabbit between them. Eventually one of them is able to bite the rabbit, which squeals and excites the other dog into biting whatever he can reach. By the time we hear the shrieks, the dogs are yanking on the rabbit from opposite directions and we’re too late to save it. Nature’s policy in this case is cruel, so one of us finishes killing the bunny.
Despite the dogs’ enthusiasm for rabbit hunting, rabbits regularly hop up one or two steps toward our deck, apparently to look over the surrounding territory. Similarly, by mid-summer, I was able to look over a list of a half-dozen examples of Nature’s strategies.
Several times we saw a familiar sight: a hawk flying up from a gully, pursued by a pair of red-winged blackbirds. When hawks prey on the nests, the redwing parents defend their territory by flying above the hawk and diving down to peck at its head as it dodges and screams. As the hawk moves down the valley, pair after pair of birds rise up from their neighborhoods and take over the defense, until the hawk is driven away.
But one day, when I heard the familiar commotion of blackbird calls, I looked up to see that the bird fleeing from them was a Great Blue Heron! The bird’s ponderous wings scooped air and its neck was folded back, but its size didn’t seem to deter the little birds who darted at it again and again until it disappeared.
Both hawk and heron far outweigh red-winged blackbirds, and have killing beaks or talons, but nature gave the blackbirds courage and agility, so they can fight predation, or take revenge in driving the predators away. Thinking like a writer, I noted that the biggest and most powerful does not always win the contest—a lesson with broad implications.
Walking the dogs one day, I was reminded that some ranch work requires paying close enough attention to impede Nature’s actions. We try to bring the cattle home from summer pasture before the first blizzard; we move cattle out of a pasture if the water is getting so low they might become bogged down if they walk too far into a dam to cool their hides. So it was that I noticed again how my father had used rocks. Driving through the pastures, or watching cattle eat, he’d pry rocks out of the pasture trails and bring them home to put around the foundation of buildings in corrals and pastures. He did this because cattle like to rub their itchy pelts on buildings, and numerous cows scratching will chisel away the soil around the foundations with their hoofs. By placing the rocks, he made the footing hard and uneven, thus thwarting their intentions and averting the damage. They could still scratch on one of the thousand fence posts around the pasture; it’s unlikely that enough cows would scratch on the same post to wear the soil away around it.
Looking more closely at the arrangement of rocks, I realized that he had to spread them a considerable distance from the foundation, because the cows would stand outside the rocks and l-e-e-e-a-n forward to scratch. My father was determined, and eventually the rocks extended so far the cattle couldn’t reach the building.
On a summer day, we discovered the nest of a killdeer very close to a low-growing juniper bush where the rabbits regularly hide. Every day the dogs dive into the shrubbery, barking as they clamber under and over branches, until the rabbits burst out of hiding and gallop down the hill—usually while the dogs are looking somewhere else. Every day we’d see a killdeer cheeping and running away from the area. Finally we saw the shallow nest with four eggs close to these bushes, where we must nearly have stepped on it several times. We finally realized that each time one of the nesting birds saw us coming, it would skitter a few feet away. After we’d seen the nest, we carefully avoided it.
One afternoon of pounding rain and hail, I looked often out the kitchen window, sure that the bird on the nest could not possibly survive. When the sun came out and I tiptoed out to look, she was there, drenched but alive, furnishing another lesson about writing: persistence. Like the duck, the killdeer knew her job and she stuck with it.
And that’s what writers do. When we start taking notes, the rest of the job should be automatic: we are writers, we observe and therefore we write. A little experiences teaches us that writing things down helps our sometimes faulty memories.
A metaphor: when we set out on a journey, we may have a map that shows us our ultimate destination, but no map can show the deer that leaps onto the highway ahead of us. We take notes to remember the deer we didn’t predict.
Observation helps us create the habit of seeing more clearly; watching our world closely lets us see the material that supplies our writing.
We take notes so as to keep what we have seen available in our minds, to study what we have written, to think about it, relate it to other facts, and eventually to a conclusion that can be written about.
Kathleen Norris told me about a monk in North Dakota who said to her:
“When I don’t write, I quit looking,
I quit seeing. When I look and see,
then I have to write.”
Linda, watching at Windbreak House.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota
© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom
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