Unplugged at The Quarry Farm, second time around

Acoustic NightAbout the time that we spent a year visiting local classrooms and introducing students to aquatic health canaries like dragonfly nymphs and hellgrammites, yet before the first goat, pig or donkey had trotted onto the farm animal sanctuary —we hadn’t even thought of attempting a farm animal sanctuary — we pipe-dreamed of what might happen here on The Quarry Farm.Acoustic Night2

There is no state or even county park system in Putnam County, nor is there a nature preserve. As family and friends have long enjoyed the woods, stream, oxbow the old quarry itself, we began to develop a trail system that is more identifiable to those of us who just know the way.

With teachers in that circle of relationships, we began to plan educational programs. Visual artists are also part of the mix, so we crafted some 2- and 3-D workshops.IMG_1081

Then Steve said wouldn’t it be something to invite musicians/nonmusicians from all over to come here and play/listen for a night? So in October of last year we sent a few emails around, made a few phone calls, put out chairs, chips and cider and waited for people to show.

IMG_1082And they did. You may have read the post about Acoustic Night 2013. If not, it’s still in the archives. I will tell you that the photos are lovely, so lovely that we have gone annual with Acoustic Night.

On September 13, 2014, the skies were full of stars and cool temperatures kept the mosquitos away. Laura lit a fire in the Red Fox Cabin fireplace and kept hot coffee, tea and hot chocolate flowing. There were volunteer-baked cookies and muffins. I’m still not sure why she sent me to the store for Cheetos, saying, “Everyone likes Cheetos, even when they’re stale,” but I have to admit that I ate quite a few of the dusty fluorescent bits myself. I guess she was right.

1908061_875195272492033_3010147628062901086_nAnd Steve was right about Acoustic Night. Musicians from 2013 returned, and others just kept coming. Erin Coburn (guitar and ukelele) and Mark Gallimore (guitar) were back. Bobbie Sue, Zoe (saxophone) Mike (trombone), another Mike (guitar) and Clara (violin) jammed from 6 to 10 p.m. A few other people came through carrying guitars but played off to the side. 10624884_875195359158691_4731297319852830606_n

There were kazoos for the first 25 arrivals and I heard a few of those. Little Caroline became quite proficient, as a matter of fact. She was a hit with the bronze turkeys next door at the sanctuary.

If you made it out this year, thank you. I hope the Cheeto dust came off your pant legs in the wash. If not, we’re thinking Labor Day weekend for Acoustic Night 2015. The Cheetos will be fresh.

Dinosaur tracks Tuba City AZ

yesterday and today

Life in the DevonianBefore The Quarry Farm in its current incarnation, with Red Fox Cabin and the gardens and a forest and the sanctuary, there was the quarry farm, pasturage for cattle and two ponies. Before the quarry farm, there was a great forest of hardwoods, oak and hickory and maple, on the very southern edge of the Great Black Swamp. Before the forest on the edge of the swamp, there was a glacier that traveled inexorably south, planing everything before it flat. Before the glacier, there was a vast, shallow, warm sea boiling with life in what we’ve come to call the Devonian Period.

And we live there now, on the floor of a sea that died some four hundred million years ago. Even so, the reality of it remains.

crinoid segmentsThe Quarry Farm isn’t simply The Quarry Farm (though, to be honest, there is little simple about it). It is also literally our home. We built here fifteen years ago and when they excavated our basement, they pulled up all manner of wonderful things; bits and pieces of what once lived here that had turned, over time, into stone. There were round chunks of coral, too big to play softball, but too small for soccer, and flat sheets of dolomite speckled with clam-like brachiopods. Later, as we began to seriously explore Cranberry Run, we found smaller pieces of coral, smoothed by time and weather and water, and tiny stone discs and columns of discs: the individual segments and broken sections from the stalks of crinoids. And all of these things were evidence of what had once been, of an ocean with strange and fantastic animals that struggled for survival before ultimately, for some at least, making their way onto land to begin a whole new aspect of life.

Everything changes. Everything evolves.

Turkey VulturesCurrent scientific theory is that present day birds are what remain of the dinosaurs, that over the course of some fifty million years, dinosaurs shrank in size and developed feathers in greater abundance (while it was once thought that only avian dinos had feathers, discoveries in the mid 1990s indicated that even non-avian species, including velociraptors, were feathered to some degree). So, the blue jay in the yard, the crows in the spare bedroom, the turkey vultures that soar over the quarry, the ducks and geese in the stream…all descended from dinosaurs. And, oh yes, the chickens.

I spend a lot of time with the chickens that live here. There is something comforting about them; the nonchalant way that they roam the property looking for food, their quiet crooning. I enjoy their interactions Smart Girland I am particularly appreciative when one, or more, chooses to spend time with me, to sit beside me or in my lap and simply be. I find them calming and inspirational and a source of nearly endless fascination. As odd as it may sound, they bring me peace. Every now and again, though, they remind of me of where they come from, what they once were.

There is one hen in particular, an eighteen-month old Jersey Giant that, when we call her anything, we simply call her Smart Girl. Smart Girl will leap into the apple trees and throw fruit down. This isn’t some phenomenally new behavior; others have done it. But when she climbs, she always throws down enough apples to distract the other chickens, ducks, geese, goats and any other animal swirling about the base of the tree before throwing something down for her. She plans her actions. And, it’s possible, she hunts. On three different occasions, I’ve seen her run across the yard with a small adult bird in her beak. On a fourth, she was carrying either a small rat or a large mouse. It may be that she’s finding these animals, dead, on the ground or stealing them from a neighbor’s cat, but I can’t preclude the possibility that she is actively pursuing prey. Sometimes now, when I’m watching her as she roams the grounds of the sanctuary, I see her differently, her and the property she’s stalking.

Time travel, as it turns out, isn’t all that difficult. All you have to do is squint.

chicken feet 3

Madmardigan

simple gifts

People never cease to amaze. As a species, well, let’s just say that I often prefer to spend my time in the company of others (chickens being the perennial favorite). As individuals, though, there are so many who shine. I met three such last Wednesday: Becki and Mustaq Ahmed and their granddaughter, Kennedy.

Not this weekend immediately past, but the weekend before, Anne and I set up at the Bluffton Farmers’ Market on behalf of The Quarry Farm. We really didn’t have anything much to sell – a basket of tomatoes, a dozen glass jars of jelly, some notecards – but farmers’ markets are great places to get the message out, to do a little self-promotion. And with the second annual Acoustic Night coming up (Saturday, September 13, from 6 pm to whenever), it seemed like a good time to make a personal appearance, be a bit more high profile. Becki and Kennedy were wandering through the market when they saw our table and picked up a copy of the latest newsletter.

On Tuesday, Becki called and asked if we’d like some of her “small and knotty” apples. She’d seen that we ask for apples in our wish list and hoped that hers would prove acceptable. From my experience, I assured her, goats and pigs and donkeys and chickens and ducks and geese and turkeys aren’t the most discriminating of gourmands; so, yes, please, apples.

The Ahmeds and their apples

She and her family came out the next afternoon with two large containers full of fruit. We off-loaded the apples, enough to fill a large, red wheelbarrow typically used to transport hay and straw. It was an excessively humid day, as many have been of late; while there was precipitation, it was more of a sky-dripping, really, than rain. The wet had most everybody under cover: the pygmy and Nigerian goats under the pines, the turkeys and chickens at the base of the crab tree and under what remains of the forsythia, the pigs in their various shelters. The ducks and geese were gamboling about, too overjoyed with the quality of the day to bother with anything as mundane as visitors.

Elora

While we waited for the sanctuary residents to recognize their windfall, Kennedy, with Becki in tow, set out to deliver the good news and meet some of those about to benefit from their gift. Mustaq tagged along behind, photographing and filming their interactions.

078

Humperdink and AndiThe giving roosterMister Bill, a recently arrived Boer goat, was the first to discover the largesse. He set to with a will, scattering bits of apple and not-so-bits of apple in a wide arc before him. The geese and the ducks discovered the bits, which alerted the chickens and the turkeys, and they tucked in. The pygmy goats followed the Ahmeds and Kennedy to the feast, where they stood on their hind legs, front feet braced on the edge of the barrow, and bobbed for apples. The three pot-bellied pigs rolled up next (three hours later, you could have almost literally rolled them away). Finally, the two Nigerian dwarf goats and the miniature donkey caught wind of the event and made their way over. It wasn’t long before the wheelbarrow was on its side, the apples spilled across the ground, allowing everybody easy access and laying waste to the old expression, “Don’t upset the apple cart.” All in all, a most wonderful day.

Buddy and company

Thank you for that, Becki and Mustaq and Kennedy. From the bottom of our hearts, thank you.

 

Just add paint

117Watercolor is too real painting. As a painter who prefers this two-dimensional medium to most others, I have been in the position to argue this point. My argument accuses oil snobs of decorating their walls with off-the-rack roadside numbers that match a couch.

Boyfriends are broken-up with because of statements like this. But that was providence, it turns out, and a long time ago.

118And painting in oils is fine, if that’s what you like. But don’t tell me that a water-based work, one which requires the painter to give a measure of control over to their chosen medium, allowing light and whims of water, air and pigment to have their way, isn’t real painting.

So, with 94 percent humidity and a forecast of sun, the second “Watercolor for Beginners” workshop took place today under the earth-red roof of the Seitz Family Pavilion. Heavy fog kept a few distant registrants away, but hot black coffee, herbed shortbread and apple oatmeal cookies revived those that took up a brush.

146I love it when watercolor novices tell me, “I have no artistic talent.” These are the ones that are the first to let go; to pool water on their paper and break the surface tension of that pool with a loaded brush. It’s the ones that have painted before, using slow-to-dry, opaque, malleable mediums, that are reluctant let go of control. Because, in my opinion, that’s what you have to do with watercolor. You have to let go and see what water, paint, paper texture and weight and gravity can create when kind of, sort of left to their own devices. Once you have witnessed that, you can begin to take the reins and shape your work.

The seven people who floated through this morning’s fog, included some of the above. They chose their subjects from the Red Fox Cabin gardens, vegetables, flowers and leaves. You can see in the photos the tentative steps, the light lines of paint on cold press paper (I wouldn’t let them sketch their subjects with pencil first). Two hours later, we had a marvelous body of work, each of them showing promise and more than one worthy of exhibition at any art festival.

Of course that, along with my thoughts on how to begin painting with watercolors, is my opinion. I could be wrong.

But I don’t think so.

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bending the rules

Earlier this week, we received a call from a friend of ours, Natalie, at Nature’s Nursery Center for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation Education. It was, she informed us, time for a release, something that we’re always up for. So Nat came down with four Virginia opossums, a woodcock and a juvenile blue jay.

The release of the opossums went off without a hitch (though one did cling to the top of my shoe and hiss at me for all he was worth before finally scrambling off toward Cranberry Run). The woodcock’s release was equally uneventful, but exciting, even so. We regularly see and, more often, hear them here in the spring. But, to the best of my knowledge, this is the first time we’ve released one at The Quarry Farm.

The blue jay, on the other hand…

jay bird 3A release, in most cases, is a relatively simple affair: you transport the animal to a suitable location, open the door of whatever is containing the animal, the animal exits its containment and then, ideally, it has the whole of the world to explore,  or at least as much of it as it can reach. It is free, beholden to and dependent on no one and nothing. The jay nearly made it. Nearly. He was brought here, the door was opened, he flew out and…he stayed.

Blue jays are corvids, cousins to crows and ravens, and like their cousins, they’re complex, intelligent birds. They’re also communal, living in extended family groups in the wild. Both of these factors, their intelligence and their sense of community, help them to survive Out There. Both of these factors also make them easy to imprint, particularly when they’re raised alone, as this jay was. With no family to turn to for help, he stays in the only community he’s ever had, with the only company he’s ever known: people.

We had the usual concerns when we released him and began the process of moving him toward self-sufficiency, predation being at the top of the list. Blue jays are slow fliers and as such, easy pickings. Along with a number of cats that treat The Quarry Farm like their own private larder, there are the wild things that prey on jays: raccoons and Cooper’s hawks and screech owls, primarily, but weasels and even the blue jay’s cousins, the crows, as well. We’re even a little concerned about the chickens; a few of the Jersey giants have developed some unusual feeding habits…but that’s a different story for a different day.

What we didn’t see coming, though, what has proven to be this jay’s greatest challenge, are the cedar waxwings.

calling waxwing

accusing waxwingThey found him nearly right away, the waxwings, and they’ve kept an eye on him, and occasionally a beak or talon, ever since.  When one spots the jay in the open, it will call the others with short trills, glaring all the while. They harass him in groups of two or three or four. It’s startling to watch. Where jays are slow and somewhat awkward fliers, waxwings are sleek and fast and the coordination that they exhibit as a flock is nearly military in its precision. But the jay is smart and takes cover in the dense foliage of apple or coffee trees, hugging the trunk and keeping branches between him and his attackers. Which is not to say that they don’t occasionally get to him, that he doesn’t sometimes need help, protection. Three pinpoint spots of blood on his neck and face tell tales of brief melees that haven’t gone his way. So I watch, now, a little more closely and step in when the odds are too dramatically out of his favor. Either I drive them off, or he comes to me, alighting on my shoulder and hiding in my admittedly thinning hair.

hiding jay

This is where the gray area of my participation in this wild thing’s life has the potential to turn black. Because it’s beguiling, this trust he shows in me, this faith. When he sits on my shoulder, when he tucks his head behind my ear, I am, in some small way, connecting with the heroes I read about as a boy. Jean Craig Shepherd’s Sam Gribley and the peregrine falcon, Frightful. Ursula LeGuin’s Ged and his otak companion. Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli with his family and mentors: Raksha and Bagheera and Baloo.

jay bird 2Even so, contrary to what some conventional wisdom suggests, what some rehabbers would insist on, I refuse to drive him away. And not only do I refuse to drive him off, I encourage him to stay. I call him to me and present him with food and, when necessary, I protect him. I justify my behavior with the knowledge that, if he’d been raised by other jays, the adult birds would still be a part of his life, defending him from predators and competitors and helping him find food. The fundamental truth is that he’s a young juvenile in a strange place with no other means of support. As rationalizations go, this one is exceedingly rational. Because he needs it, support. Without it, his chances for survival drop alarmingly.

Just like Cat Stevens said, “It’s a wild world.”

jay bird

 

so that’s what you call him…

The Quarry Farm is pleased to introduce Captain John Smith.

No Name Opossum

Thanks, Kim, for the suggestion, and thanks to everyone who offered up a recommendation. There were several that made the cut, but this, by far, was our favorite. Want to know why? Just follow the link: 

http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/mcvmagazine/issues/2014/jan-feb/young-naturalists.html

a different perspective

For the moment, let’s say you’re driving down a two-lane highway at night when, off to the side, your headlights pick up a misshapen bundle. You slow down to get a better look at whatever’s laying there, something that’s almost certainly dead, when, suddenly, part of the bundle shakes itself loose and skitters away into the dark…

Or it could be that there’s this cat that’s been hanging around and it’s pretty obvious that it’s had it more than a little rough. So, because you feel sorry for the poor wee thing, you’ve started leaving food out in a little dish by the back kitchen door. You hear it rustling around and turn on the light to give it a once over, see if there’s any improvement in its condition, only it’s not a cat, nothing like a cat, crunching down kibble. Nothing like a cat at all…

Or maybe it’s the night before garbage pick-up and you’re hauling the last bag out to the curb where you’ve already placed your recyclables and one half-full can. You reach for the lid, but it’s not in place. It’s lying, top-down, in the grass next to the can, and that’s odd because you’re more than kind of certain that you actually did put it in place before heading back to the house for that one last sack of trash. And that’s when you see it, furtive and menacing all at the same time, perched in the ripped-open Hefty bag at the bottom of the garbage can…

Whatever the scenario, what happens next is almost universal: you see those black eyes and all those sharp, glinting teeth in that gaping maw and your flight reflex kicks in. Before you’re even aware of turning, you’re burning rubber down the road, racing up the stairs, or dead-panic, brainless sprinting back to the house. And if your ears weren’t already full of the THUD, THUD, THUD of your own pounding heart, you know – I mean, you just know – that you’d hear it scrabbling along behind you, hissing and growling and keening for blood…

Virginia opossumExcept we’re not talking about some Jurassic Park raptor here, nor a great white shark or a freakshow hybrid of a government experiment gone awry, either. Nope. It’s an opossum – a Virginia opossum, to be precise – and it poses about as much threat to you as the neighbor’s Pomeranian. (You know, the one that they spritz with stink-pretty every other week after it’s been to the salon? The one that wears the pink Hello Kitty sweater as soon as the temperature drops below 40 degrees Fahrenheit? Yeah. That one.) So instead of chasing you down, that opossum’s busy either trying to put as much distance between the two of you as it possibly can, or making itself as small as possible, hoping against hope that you just won’t notice it.

Understand, I’m not saying that opossums can’t seem scary. They have more teeth than any other North American mammal and when their jaws are gaping wide in abject terror (yeah, mate, they’re positively terrified of you) it can be a little intimidating. But here’s the rub. Opossums aren’t predators. They’re scavengers, eaters of the dead and the overripe. See, they’re not interested in taking a bite out of you, unless, of course, you’re dead; in which case you have considerably bigger things to worry about than the chance that a wandering opossum just might stop in for a nibble.

mother and babies

So, no, opossums aren’t predatory, but they are seriously cool. They’re nomadic marsupials, have opposable thumbs on their back feet and they have prehensile tails. They’re the most primitive mammal in North America and, when threatened, “play possum.” The word “play,” though, is more than a bit misleading. It’s not a conscious act, not something that they choose to do. Nope, it’s something that happens to them when they get overexcited. Their hard drives crash and there’s absolutely nothing playful about a crashed hard drive.

Keep all this in mind the next time you scare up an opossum, because “scare,” my friends, is truly a matter of perspective.

Give Us a Hand and We’ll Give You a Shirt

If you’ve been following us for any time at all, you’ll know that, while we focus on assisting domestic animals, we also work with the occasional wild, but native, animal, as well. Most are just passing through, either on their way back to the wild or off to a rehab center. Sometimes, however, as with the two American crows and the Canada goose that live here, this is where they’ll stay from here on out. These native animals aren’t eligible for release, either because they have some physical defect that will prevent them from a successful return, or because they’ve developed a certain affinity for their most significant predator, humans. Such is the case with an opossum that recently came to us from Nature’s Nursery Center for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation Education.

No Name OpossumThey told us right up front that he seemed a bit on the friendly side, and he was. Even so, we treated him with the same distance as we treat all such animals we’re tasked with fostering. Several days ago, after nearly six weeks here at The Quarry Farm, we decided it was time to give him the opportunity to go it on his own. Sadly, rather than march off into the woods or even just into the tall grass near the banks of Cranberry Run, he decided to follow us back to the house.

After discussing the situation with the powers that be at Nature’s Nursery, it was decided that responsibility for him should be transferred to The Quarry Farm, where he will live out his days and serve as an ambassador of his kind to the folks who visit us here, on-site, and to those whom we visit in their classrooms.

But, Houston, we have a problem. We can’t seem to come up with a suitable name for him. We’ve labeled him a host of different monikers, but none of them have stuck. So we’re throwing it open and asking for help. The person who comes up with an appropriate name (and, yes, we’re the ones who decide what’s appropriate) will get a Quarry Farm T-shirt.

So, have at it, boys and girls, men and women.

And thanks. Here’s another quick study of the little guy, should that prove inspirational.

No Name Opossum