I'm sitting on the steps to my little backyard cabin with this springs first fire going in the fire-pit and a laptop on my no longer fish-belly white winter knees, trying to think of something bike related to write. It would be easier if there wasn't a Border Collie on her back at my feet hooking her paw over my arm every 2 minutes trying to get me to rub her tummy, or her cousin bringing a slobbered-up tennis ball for me to throw every 6o seconds in between. There's way too much else going on within sight and hearing to concentrate anyway, so this is hopeless.
All my Neighbors seem to be out taking advantage of one of the very nicest evenings so far this April. It's cool and almost, but not quite perfectly still and the sun is just slipping below the Alleghenies's 20 miles to the west. I hope everyone over in W. Virginia takes a peek out their window about now because it's already too late over on our side.All the industry at the houses across the road is winding down, Doug was out picking up sticks, probably going to mow tomorrow. And Robert and Lois, the nice older couple, were doing something in their garden and playing with the dog they adopted after someone dropped it off a few weeks ago. A half grown black male German Short-haired Pointer sort of animal. Named Sparky. Excellent dog. A genuine asset to the Neighborhood if maybe a bit frantic for a couple of gentle Grandparents(or maybe not). Down the hill and across the road I see a tractor plowing what appears to be a magnificently over ambitious garden across from the house of the folks we bought our land from. It will be interesting to see what that's all about if I remember to look again sometime. I probably wont.
We have good Neighbors and whenever we slow down long enough to stop worrying about what's happening next Thursday and think about them, we always remark about how long it's been since we had any of them over for dinner on the porch or a campfire. But we have a couple of acres of meadow grass and scrubby cedars between us and them and so we don't bump into each other at the mailbox or the clothesline so much as sort of observe each other from the middle distance and wish each other well on the evening breeze. We have other, closer Neighbors I tend to interact with more than the people in the houses though. They're out and about this evening as well.
Some of my favorite Neighbors are the Birds and other Animals that live around our home here in the Shenandoah Valley, and I think I might have just heard the first Nighthawk of the year, just back from winter in Fla. or Costa Rica or wherever they go.
That's always a big deal for me. I keep a running record of the first sighting (on the wall of the basement stairway along with notes about when and where the first wild Asparagus and the Morels pop out),so after hearing one of them calling I'll be happy to catch a glimpse and note it down with the stubby pencil that hangs on a piece of string from a tack(It wont be too many years till I need a longer string once I've filled in it's present radius with dates and phone numbers and lyrics from Fats Waller songs). It's still a little early though, most years they don't show up till at least the first week of May, but it's worth keeping an eye peeled even now. Seeing or hearing Nighthawks flying around like they do makes me want to get on my bike and go swooping and diving around on the gravel roads in this part of the County. And whenever I'm out on those rides I seem to be on the lookout for my swoopy friends. Once I got tuned into the habits of these fantastic birds(not actual Hawks but a member of the Goatsucker Family, like Whipoorwills) they sort of became a totem or something for me. I seem to live in a world filled with them from May to Oct. I can travel almost anywhere and see them. Swooping overhead while standing in a Motel parking lot in Memphis,or hear them calling in the twilight while walking to the subway in D.C. after spending the day at the museums, or make out the distinctive whistling of the air through their wing feathers as they pull out of another dramatic dive while catching dinner on a moonlit night at the Lake in Indiana. They just about make a nuisance of themselves the way they want to mob me whenever I go back to Texas.
Nighthawks nest on the ground in open grassy areas and I know that as the field behind my house grows up (It doesn't belong to me so I can't go hacking and chopping to keep the brush grubbed out) there will come a point where they won't come live beside me any longer. But I hope they always hang out where we can see and hear them. You should see them fly around diving for bugs behind the lawnmower. I'd like to know what it's like just screwing around doing aerobatics all the time like that.
From the cabin steps I can see out into the hundred or so acres of woods and pasture behind and between my house and the Quarry that's across the R.R. tracks at the bottom of the hill. About 40 yards from where I was sitting(I moved inside, the fire went out and it was getting dark and the dogs were whining for snacks) is a big brush-pile that sits in the bottom of a big depression(a lovely, unstable, tree rimmed sinkhole that guarantee's I'll never have anything more civilized than Cows or Sheep for Neighbors back there, which I think is worth the little nagging fear I have of the ancient limestone ridge my house sits on collapsing some night and taking my down to the center of the Earth as I lay dreaming in my bed). That brush-pile is like a tenement, full of old retired Ground Hogs and huge multi-generational families of Rabbits who came to this area to find work manufacturing Rabbits. There's likely a thousand Voles, Moles and Field Mice in there as well. The population density in there during a year with good rains is like Mexico City or Tokyo, and it's just about as interesting. It's amazing we get anything out of a garden at all but we don't seem to ever run out as long as we don't mind letting them have all the really good stuff. There's at least one Black Snake, as big as my arm and longer than you can hold your breath, that lives in there too. I doubt it eats enough to make a difference to the Rabbits, in fact the Momma Rabbits might be glad to have it around to give naughty Bunnies a reason to listen to their Mothers and come in to supper before the Serpent get's them.
It's too loud in there for Possum's but we do get them occasionally. the last one lived in the culvert under the end of our lane for 3 or 4 years. Nice enough but timid to a fault and a bit unstable like most of them. I almost ran over that guy a hundred times. I'd come flying down the hill on my bike after work and turn onto the gravel drive and he'd dart out from the grass and throw himself onto his back directly in front of my wheel. I'd hollar and slam on the brakes, and he'd open one eye and leer up at me with that delirious grin and shiver with delight at still being alive. Over and over again. I'd put a foot down and we'd chat for a bit, he'd ask how my "dotters wuz gettin along" and apologize for frightening them, staring at them like that from the tall grass as they waited for the bus. And I'd say, "Oh, don't mention it, THEY never do". A big polite lie of the kind one tells to get along, then I'd remind him I'd be coming back this way about the same time tomorrow and that the safest thing is to just stay put and don't jump out like that, and he'd tug at his forelock and assure me it would never happen again. And the very next day he'd do exactly the same thing from a different spot. He disappeared after getting driven out of his hole by an enormous, sloppy Ground Hog that showed up one spring. I never could stand that fat loud-mouthed Marmot. SO arrogant, and SUCH a know-it-all. One afternoon I just shot him. He WAS undermining my lane by digging out a giant cavern under the culvert, but really it was as much about his politics as anything.
About a hundred yards from the Brush-pile, halfway to the woods, there's a ledge of exposed limestone with some cedars behind and a couple of holes under, that faces the morning sun. That's where SHE lives. I don't see her very often but She does seem to be the center of attention whenever she's around. She's a Fox. Foxes live just about everywhere, if you're not reading this somewhere in Antarctica, there's a good chance you live within an easy afternoon walk of a couple. Maybe a lot closer than that. But that doesn't mean they're common in anything but the numerical sense. I think they're border-line Magical in general but this one in particular has become something of a distraction. Slim, with a smart, sharp edged femininity. Always perfectly groomed and shimmeringly cinnamon. I have it bad for her and She encourages it in an intentionally aloof but engaging, Holly Golightly sort of way.
Every so often I'll take some scraps out and leave them on a big flat rock way out in the middle of the field(we both pretend I don't know about her den), most of the time She's nowhere to be seen but sometimes I catch a glimpse of an auburn shadow just inside the woods and I get my hopes up only to give up after awhile and trudge back to the house disappointed and clutching an empty tupperware. And other times I turn around and She's just there. Sitting at the base of the Persimmon tree by the big rock, tail curled around her feet with the white tip modestly tucked under her chin. I'll usually say something clever and sophisticated like "Oh, Why it's you..." as if She had caught me bringing out chicken fat and fish bones for the Cattle instead of trying to lure her into range for a chat. But She invariably acts as though we just happened to bump into each other on the way to the shops and inquires about my family and that sort of thing. She always asks about my Dogs and want's me to remember to tell them she said "Hello". Which is a bit of Kabuki theater since neither my Dogs or her can stand the sight or smell of each other, and the pretense of any of them being "Ladies" is tough to maintain if you've ever heard them insulting each other over the fence. The things they call each other. It's a wonder it doesn't rot their teeth, it's that bad.
But to be 6 feet from her and listen to her relaxed purring chuckle and see the golden speckles in her bright eyes is to be bewitched, charmed in the absolute literal sense. I find myself hanging on every word, incapable of believing she could ever be so coarse as to raise her voice or say an unkind thing. You have to be on your guard to spend any time around Foxes without getting taken in, the stories the Chickens tell about them are all too true I'm afraid. Our conversations never get too personal, it typically starts with something along the lines of... "Mr. Spindizzy! What LOVELY Chicken bones! Did you make them yourself? You are an AMAZING cook, and so handsome(!)... Mrs. Dizzy is such a lucky woman.". Then we'll talk a bit about what I've been writing or she might look through my sketchbook if I have it in my coat pocket, then she tells me about what's going on in the woods while she scrapes the bacon fat onto a Dock leaf with my pocket knife. It's usually complaints about the Crows and what she calls their "low behavior" or unflattering stories about my Neighbors with the Chickens and the giant garden. She knows they've asked me to shoot her any number of times but that I never will, and so She can't resist telling me stories of their ridiculous attempts to prevent her from dropping in to visit their Hens(only to chat and pick up the dud-eggs, She swears). I've heard both sides of some of these stories and have to admit she doesn't have to bend the truth to make her point about the unsuitability of some people for rural living. I don't laugh too hard though, I don't think I'd come out any better if it was my Chickens she was romancing. It might be worse even, a grown man tricked into roasting the bird with onions and carrots before leaving it by the Hen House door to prevent the Fox having to work at it and make him out to be an even greater fool.
While we talk the shadows will be getting longer and I'll realize it's been 10 minutes and she'll be wrapping the bones up in leaves and dropping them in her little bag any second now and disappearing, so I take a good look while I can, knowing that everything about a Foxes life is brief and sudden and the next time I see her she could be dead by the road or being ministered to by a committee of Crows and Buzzards under this very tree. But for now, right this second, she is perfect and well fitted to this little piece of the world that holds us both and all the others of all kinds that we love and depend on and I think about how fortunate I am to be her friend. And if I know that there isn't a thing in the world she needs badly enough to ever let me bury my nose in the fluffy white ruff at the base of her neck, I also know that she seems to want me for something more than just bacon grease and bones and that feels like a blessing.
Until I realize She's carried off another one of my pocketknives.
Oh well, it's dark and everyone but me has turned out the lights and gone to bed. If I haven't thought of anything worth writing by now I don't suppose staying up any longer will help. Maybe I'll think of something tomorrow.