Transition to Country:
How moving changed our view of "pets"
A few years back, I was nearing retirement and looking forward to remaining in my big home in a big city. Then, I was given a choice: take custody of my then 1 1/2 year old granddaughter or see her sent to foster care. We did ok at first, she, I and my son. We juggled his school and my two jobs, though at times not so well. Then my daughter announced another pregnancy. And I had to start thinking about schooling for two little girls. The city was no place for them. So I packed them up, and my son, for which I am so grateful, also packed up and we moved to my "ancestral home". Then there was another pregnancy and another call about foster care. I made the 12 hour drive to get her, stayed overnight at a hotel and drove back. Hawks flew along side the car most of the way back down the old country highways. The little one-bedroom house on the river suddenly seemed too small, porch and outbuildings or no. So we moved from my late dad's place to a little mobile home with a pond and some acreage and fruit trees. We were living on the same road as my grandfather's generation had and I was pleased with the knowledge that "we" had returned - the girls would be the 7th generation here.
There were lots of changes to be made in this transition. But one of the most amusing has been how our views of "pets" has evolved. We still have the cat who moved with us. And the dog my son got me to look after us when he moved out on his own. Then we adopted some chickens from a local rescue and were ecstatic when they hatched several eggs. The kids were growing and spending more time outdoors, so seeing more of the animals who'd been living on the property when it was essentially abandoned for a couple of years prior to us moving in. They made pine cone feeders for the deer and wild birds. They learned not to step in what the bear left behind after stealing all our pears. They learned to redirect the turtles who were crossing the paved road to slow. trying to get back to the pond before getting run over. The kind of thing I'd expect to see in their development. They were thrilled when their uncle and I rescued an nearly frozen-dead fawn in the river next to dad's old place. He wrapped her in his brand new flannel shirt and held her in his lap to warm her until we got to the local rescue. It was touch and go for awhile, and the shirt was a loss. She had to spend some time in a hospital, but eventually returned to the rescue. The girls loved going to visit and hand-feed her. Her eyes remained as blue as the water we'd found her in and so she was called "River".
Things changed over time and every year has been different. They are growing up with a great interest in science and steeped in indigenous and heathen teachings. They are out and about more independently, learning to forage plants for winter teas and rubs. And they're coming to appreciate visitors that are guests but not really pets. At first, it was from a distance, like the muskrat, kingfisher and ducks who live on the pond briefly in the spring. Or the porcupine family that nested in the willow for the part of one winter. We wondered why they moved away when they did until my son found the body of the little one in the spring - it had fallen out of the tree and drowned in the pond. The girls cried and I wasn't too far behind them. But there were laughs, too. Like the ruffled grouse that took great pleasure in standing just outside the chickens' fenced in area, courting the hens and antagonizing my rooster. It took several years before I let them free-range but the grouse hasn't come back and the quail stick to the crabapple tree.
This year, at 6, 8 and 10, the girls have been much more independent. They've adopted the virtue of hospitality and have found that it has its own rewards. The ravens we've fed chase off the eagles that are eyeing our chickens and warn of bad weather. Everyone agrees that this is a good exchange. But some who've never lived in the country, with different life perspectives and experiences, see some of the other "fun stuff" as not so funny or even threatening. Take the chipmunks they kept feeding. We've come to call them Chip and Dale (Chip is the one with the bald spot). They got fed so often (at times over my objections and warnings) that they have become quite tame, watching me on the porch, waiting for an opportunity to go in to forage rather than beg. And Chip has managed to do so several times. The girls come running when they hear me cussing and tell him to go home. Then there's the mouse who knows just when I get up in the middle of the night, every night. I got up early one night and startled him so much he ran right up a wall. Why, I wondered, was this mouse becoming so bold? Probably because, as I caught them one evening, the kids were hand-feeding it. Predators - big ones - we've pretty much left alone, though Loki, the dog, doesn't always follow this rule. He has, several times now, managed to steal a hind quarter from a deer taken down by coyotes or wolves and brought it home. The girls don't even like hearing them at night, though I do. At dad's, we even hear a cougar once or twice. And it took awhile, quite awhile, to get used to the owls screeching at night - it sounded more like a horror movie than the peaceful woods I'd envisioned. And there was the weasel living in the shed that hissed at the girls for several months when they went in for chicken feed, with the result being me teaching them to "puff out" and holler. And going out with them to get feed for several weeks. He must have decided it was too much work to deal with 3 screaming little girls as he disappeared. The raccoons actually avoided us for the first year. Then, my daughter moved up. She asked to store some things in the shed til spring, so of course, I said she could. I never thought to ask what. And come spring, when she went to claim her belongings, she decided she didn't want the brown sugar because "it looked like mice bit the bag" (good idea) so she'd just dump it out (bad idea). The raccoons had a field day til it ran out. Then they went hunting for more treats. I spent a lot of time running out to the coop when I heard the fussing, and a lot of time trying to repurpose something strong enough to keep them out. Then I spent a lot of time and money trying to find a light or something to keep them away. I finally found the right one and it's been very effective, thank goodness. We were well into winter and plodding through snow up to my hips to chase them off before I broke down and bought the lights.
It's not just mammals that have tried to revert to living in what we consider "our" space and adapt to our lifestyle superimposed on theirs. The girls have been in on-line school since March and I have been on work-from-home, so we've pretty much been around the house 24/7 and the guests have stopped trying to avoid us. Of course, the pond has always had it's share of frogs - 3 species to be exact - which tend, along with the bugs, to draw their predators. I love the dragon flies, damsel flies, butterflies and fireflies and am always sad to see them go as I know winter is fast upon us. Most people in our lives don't shudder too much about those, though my son would prefer I'd cut the lawn a few times over the season even at risk of reducing habitat for these bugs and pollinators. It's worth the high grass, though, when a dragon fly lands on you and stays awhile. Well worth it. I was so happy when, cleaning out a shed that collapsed due to the snow, my son found a salamander - I'd not seen one since I was a kid. And the girls were miffed as it was gone before they got done with school. The most fun, by far, this year was the ribbon snake. At first, she came in and out through the space under the door of the mud room, something the green snake of last year never did. She'd lay in the windowsill in front of the potted plants I'd squeezed in from the office when we'd gone to off-site work. She started hanging around in the pots, then got braver and sat watching me watch her on the ledge from the mudroom to my work space. We got a good look one day and she was over 2 feet long. She'd even begun to let the oldest child touch her. We called her Ribbon and assumed she was a "boy". Wrong! By the beginning of fall, she was sitting watching me type and I spotted a second, smaller head that'd I'd initially assumed was her tail. Nope - Slither, as the kids called her - was a baby ribbon snake. Like the humming birds that dive-bomb my head when their feeder runs low and the assorted welcome types of flies, they are gone for the winter now. It's turning cold. I miss the snakes, though it makes everyone I know shudder. As pets go, they are pretty low maintenance. I try not to cuss at Chip, Dale and Mousey so much - I guess it's the price for having invaded their world. The cat and dog have quit chasing them for the most part, so I guess they're here for the winter. An odd kind of amusement, I'll admit, but amusing is important out here. Better for my budget than on- shopping. And they do force me to make sure all dry foods are in repurposed glass jars.