Wednesday, December 22, 2010


I had thought that I'd be posting amateur photographs of the solstice eclipse yesterday.

Skies were winter-clarified and bright, and the news was abuzz about the blood-red moon that we could expect. I researched photography sites for hints on using my modest digital camera, got out the tripod, and played with the controls. Had some normally verboten dinnertime caffeine, and stayed up.

At midnight the moon burned cold and high, sharp-edged and brilliant. The landscape glowed back. I could read by the light.

By two, the shroud of clouds was so thick that I could not find the moon at all -- premature eclipsulation.

Sunday night I'd been possessed by the urgent thought that it was time for the last of the excess cockerels to convert -- convert from hen-harassing freeloading loud-mouthed date-rapists into coq a vin and mole. I'd caged them up then, and spent Monday afternoon killing, plucking, and butchering them. I am prone to procrastinate those chores that require me to kill someone, and this task goes faster if PC is here to help, so this positive urgency was curious. It just seemed as if it needed to get done now.

Much like the wood-splitting that calls me out back nearly every day while the light fades. As the stacked cordwood piles up, I feel a little less nervous urgency in my bowels.

I was not born a medieval peasant or stone-age pastoralist; winter has not meant especial hunger and risk for me. But somewhere in the last 10,000 years of re-twisting DNA, there must be a gene that, triggered in the proper context, tells me: Cold out, meat will keep, you can't afford to feed that guy all winter, now is the time.

So at Yule we celebrate with fire and flesh.

Barn chores kept me busy yesterday, and it was coming on 6:30 when I remembered the bowl of rooster heads and innards chilling on the porch.

The dogs get the necks, gizzards, feet, hearts, lungs, enormous testicles, and livers. But the heads and guts are the portion of the other canids, the family of red fox who den in the hollow log at the far east end of our south pasture.

The fox stump is a perhaps fifty feet from their favorite lookout spot. Because generations of lazy farmers have nailed their fence wire to the trunks of trees, any tree that expires near the pasture edges must be cut at least chest-high, leaving a tall stump. The fox stump is too tall for my dogs to steal the foxes' tithe. As the tree's formerly living layers rot away, nails and staples and bits of wire appear on the pasture-facing side, as if exposed by rain on stone.

I've been bringing the slaughter remnants and the occasional naturally-expired bird to the stump since we got our poultry. I've never lost a bird to a fox. It's a contract enforced by Moe's diligent patrols and the block walls of the barn. But still, the foxes have been good neighbors. Polite. Deferential. Their tracks in the snow take a hard turn when they encounter the tracks that record Moe's perimeter -- the canids have an ongoing and subtle conversation, though I doubt they have often seen one another. For a dog or fox, scent is thought and intention distilled in time. Moe's perimeter, and Rosie and Cole's profane late-night call-and-response sessions, are no doubt what keeps the local coyotes at arm's length -- and whatever pushes the coyotes away is good for the foxes.

So the dogs and I walked out to the end of the pasture and left an offering feast on the fox stump at just about the moment of the solstice. We had the moon and sky back; I had not even brought a headlamp, whose beam shuts out the world. As we neared the house and barn, warm lights making embers of each window, I felt the great horned owl.

One never hears an owl, unless the owl intends.

I turned just as she landed on the top of the big hemlock that guards the outside curve of the lane. The dogs felt her too; they rushed the tree -- but silently -- and must have been circling its trunk under the dark cave of its branches.

The owl said nothing, just made a silhouette. I watched her for several minutes. But goats were yelling in their stalls about dinner.

When I came out of the barn ten minutes later, she had silently dissolved.

In the small hours this morning, Rosie stood at the bedroom window and growled profane threats under her breath.

This happens from time to time; usually I can make out nothing in the darkness. I believe her, but in winter, with all our creatures locked in after dark, the night belongs to the wild things.

This time, moon blazing once again and snowy world glowing, I could see the owl, posted on top of a defunct utility pole a hundred feet from the front door. She was scanning the garden, hayfield, and stone retaining wall for prospects of her own Yule meat feast.

Uncommon brightness illuminated the solitary life of a night creature on this, the darkest day of the year.


  1. Absolutely beautifully written. I really enjoyed this blog post. Thanks!

    Cindy Carlson/ES owner of Cosi

  2. You really outdid yourself with this one. Absolutely wonderful! Happy holidays!

  3. Lovely, just lovely. What a gift you have. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  4. you wrote: "One never hears an owl, unless the owl intends."

    Owls and moonlight equal Magic!

    A wondrous thing, the power of words - your words conjure up my mind's eye image of owl shadow in moonlight, slowly wheeling overhead, late one fall night, a crisp, clear full moon night.

    I was walking back towards the woods that night to round up my 5 month old cat, with the knowledge that owls lived, and hooted!, in those woods. I had only just picked up the cat and turned to go back to the house when I saw/heard/felt the owl's presence.

    A faint whisper of feather on wind (and yes I could hear it, just barely), a large black shadow arcing across the ground.

    Beautiful and chilling. Glad I went out to get the cat!

    Thanks for calling up that memory!


  5. Another polished gem, Heather.


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