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Monday, January 4, 2010


For many Americans, the whole year seems to center around Christmas.  In January we are recovering from it; in spring we say to each other, "Summer is almost here, Christmas will be here before you know it."  In August we make our airplane reservations and shopping list.  Thanksgiving is just a blip in the schedule becoming a day to get ready for "black" Friday.  Many people use Thanksgiving as a day to put up their Christmas lights. We can't even talk about the week before Christmas without our voices gaining a higher pitch and rolling our eyes. For many people it is a lonely time spent observing the mania of others as they clamor for a "perfect" Christmas.

All these activities and plans cause problems for ramblers. I'm a rambler, meaning I have trouble with schedules.  We ramblers tend to react to life as it happens.  We might plan well, but living often interrupts those plans as it presents us with spontaneous opportunities to ramble.  For some ramblers, the interruption might be a good book, the sudden urge to bake or maybe a visit with a friend that just can't wait.  For me, it could be one of those things, but often it is the weather.  There is not a particular sort of weather that pulls me outside but weather conditions that perfectly mesh with the current state of what I can only call my soul.  It could be a beautiful 72 degree day that makes cheers me up enough to open the windows and even clean the house or I may be drawn to the window to look upon a crisp cold world that offers trees covered with sparkling ice crystals and a blinding world as snow reflects blue skies and brilliant sun. 
Most often, though, it is the rain. Warm rain or cold rain, it doesn't matter as long as it is the drizzily or wet stuff that builds up on my hat then drips intermittently into my eyes. 
Gardening is great in the rain.  Bugs are few and seldom bite, perspiration is not a problem to notice when you are already covered in water. Mud may be an issue but not enough to keep me inside.  The best, though, is just walking around in the rain.  In the rainy woods, I am usually alone. The birds don't mind a continuous drizziling rain but most people avoid the wet woods, not thrilled to have their faces slapped by branches drooping with the weight of leaves holding water until it becomes heavy enough to roll off, filling the woods with a dripping concerto.

This Christmas, for me was filled with family, both family in the house and family in my mind.  The family in the house was great, filling each waking moment with bursts of activity (usually eating), games and conversation.  But the family in my mind kept causing me to ramble, sometimes wandering to my first family celebrating in another town without me or to my daughter who was spending her first Christmas away from home. Constant human company also drove me outside to ramble through the yard searching for tracks in the snow or memories in the air. 
Christmas morning brought the best ramble of all.  My son and his new wife decided that we were no longer going to observe the tradition of waking up predawn to open presents followed by orange sweet rolls from a can along with lots of juice and tea.  To convince us to abandon the custom, they  promised cheese, and breads to munch on as we drank hot tea and opened presents followed by a brunch of lemon poppyseed waffles topped with whipped cream and berries.  Okay. Fine.  I can change. . . .really, I can. So as soon as I awakened I dressed warmly and left the house for the first annual Christmas morning walk. 

Heading out the path behind the garden I discovered this wonderful aray of frozen fungus. The morning sun had melted its ice sheath just enough to give the rubbery blobs a great shiney glow that made me laugh out loud with delight.  There was not a scratch or mark of any kind on them giving the trio an artificial effect like plastic clown ears glued to the tree stump just to see if I would notice.

Well, notice I did and it was a fine way to start a journey.  What a great journey it was. 

The woods had not failed to decorate itself with the Christmas colors of red and green.  I first came upon this green moss that acted as if it knew spring would follow the dark winter.  It's bright green growth pushed up through the leaves as a mound of velvet, proving that the woods weren't asleep. 
The moss has obviously grown after the leaves had fallen, pushing them aside while most other life was content to remain covered by their protective cover.  Being a bryophyte with no vascular tissue to easily freeze, this moss will continue growing as long as there is water to feed it.

The red I found was on a sumac growing along the edge of the hayfield.  I never look upon sumac without thinking of my father who died more than 27 years ago.  Dad was interested in everything, but especially in things that grow.  His interests were fed, like mine, with books on every subject.  Unlike me, he usually remembered what he had read.  I don't know if he ever actually did it, but he often talked about making "lemonade" from sumac berries. (sumacade?).  I've never made it either but I haven't given up on the plan. Perhaps this will be the year. 

One of my favorite discoveries Christmas morning was this den.  I'm not sure what lives here, but I've ruled out a  groundhog because the den entrance has recently been used and appears much larger than one used by a groundhog.  Also, it seems to be dug differently than a groundhog den.  More clues are given by the tracks leading into the opening.  The tracks look like dog or large cat tracks.  A bobcat is the only large cat likely to be around here, but I think the tracks look more like a dog's.  It is hard to tell because the snow is already melting around the tracks and I don't really know much about identifying animal tracks.

.I think that it is probably a coyote den and I'm thrilled.  For two years I've been searching for a coyote den.  We've seen young coyotes not far from this hole, running across the hay field, or lying near the tree line watching a flock of turkeys.  I always assumed they would choose to live in the rocks on the other side of the hill where there are many spots that look like good places for an animal to live. 
There are people who are not thrilled with the thought of a coyote living nearby but I am.  I love the thought of this animal with its cunning and great history sharing my hilltop. 
In her book Prodigal Summer, Barbara Kingsolver made me love coyotes.  She, and other writers have convinced me that coyotes are not the killers we are often led to believe.  Their diet consists more of mice and grasshoppers than it does of larger animals.  I know they will kill small dogs for meals, or even gang up on larger male dogs to exterminate the competition, but they kill far fewer farm animals than do packs of domestic dogs.  Also, a coyote kills for survival, not for the fun of it. In my mind, coyotes, here in the east fill a niche without being much of a threat to humans.  I know that on the west coast of the United States, there are incidents of coyotes becoming big problems in heavily populated areas.  A few have threatened humans.  In our area, though, heavy population is not much of a problem yet. 

I like the idea of a coyote helping keep the mice and mole or vole population down around my home. More mice means more deer ticks in my garden and more possibility of lyme disease. Coyotes also kill cats.  This doesn't endear them to many people.  While I am a cat lover and have had cats as pets but I don't now so am not worried about losing a pet. I do worry about the ferral cats around our home, cats that have become lost, or have been abandoned to survive on their own.  Without coyotes, these cats have no predators to keep their numbers down.  They are ravaging the songbird population. For me they cause a great dilemma. I cannot stand to see an animal starve yet I don't want to convince a cat to stay around my home as a place it can find food, including the birds at my feeder. 

A few feet from the large den entrance I found another opening.  This one was much smaller, maybe dug for an emergancy exit or for air conditioning - yet another thing about which I know very little. 
I do know a little bit about the eastern coyote's history.  If any readers know more, please feel free to add it in the comments.  Evidently, as the American west became more populated by humans, the western coyote drifted into Canada.  The plains are not a very hospitable place for coyotes.  In Canada the coyote inerbred with the wolf as it moved east.  Somewhere in the northeast it crossed the border back into the United States and headed south through the eastern woods. The eastern coyote is different from its western cousins due to the influence of breeding with Canadian wolves, I believe making these a bit larger. 
Coyotes have survived throughout the years because of their great adaptability.  They have learned to live near human populations, and will eat a variety of foods from bugs and animals to fruits, depending upon availablilty and the season.  While not actively encouraging the coyote to move in, I feel free to enjoy its presence and revel in its wildnesss when I spot one. A couple weeks ago, while I was feeding the crows, a coyote walked across the field down the hill from where I was.  I couldn't help but make a small sound to get its attention.  The coyote turned, looked at me, probably judging the distance and lack of threat, then turned away and confidently loped away as if I didn't exist.  I did and my existence was made richer by the sight of that wild animal disappearing over the hill.

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