Ruffled Feathers and Spilled Milk

Farming with ducks and dairy goats, chickens and children.


Posted on | April 20, 2014 | 1 Comment

When we moved out to this piece of property it was almost all wooded.  Walking to the pond with infants or toddlers was like choosing between a quick death by cedar tree spike to the chest or slow expiration by entrapment in inescapable underbrush.  Not to mention heart-stopping encounters with spider webs (if the web is on your face, where is the spider?) and humiliating strip-down tick checks on the deck before reentering the house.  So one of my first landscaping plans was to make a clear path to the pond and back.

And every day while the children napped, I stumbled around in the woods—-trimming branches, rolling fallen trees, cutting back briars, moving rocks—-until I created a meandering pathway.  I simply piled the brush on the sides of the path because there was no way I was hauling it all up to the house and it would still be 12 years before Big was old enough to be FireMaster and in charge of burning anything and everything that we could fit into the fire pit.

Also, I imagined the brush piles would be excellent habitat for the local population of adorable critters.  I pictured birds and bunnies, chipmunks and field mice, safely ensconced in the piles and nibbling back the undergrowth for me.  I pictured me and the kids strolling through the picturesque woods and communing with nature.  Let’s be honest.  I pictured this:

Oh, there were some errors.  One year I actually raked the path clear because I discovered the leaf debris covered a variety of ankle-spraining holes.  I spent hours and hours raking leaves in the middle of the woods.  Raking.  In.  The.  Middle.  Of.  The.  Woods.  And hauling those leaves to a different section of the woods.  Which sounds stupid and mind-numbing.  But consider that at the time I was staying at home raising four children, aged 5 and under.  Stupid and mind-numbing is relative.

Of course, the first heavy rain storm proved to me that ankle-spraining holes hidden under leaf debris are actually more appealing than a huge mud sluice washing down the hill and through the woods to the pond.  Especially when that mud sluice contains all the topsoil from the front yard.  And a good part of the dirt from the foundation of the house.  Oh, and the pond is not so appealing when it’s filled with dirt either.

Another year I decided the paths needed a moss makeover.  According to lots of landscaping books, moss is a no mow, no erosion, low water solution to having green groundcover in shady areas.  I spent days blending moss from the front yard and then spraying it onto the path in the woods.  I didn’t have any ridiculous expectations.  I was just picturing something simple, you know, like this moss path in a professionally landscaped botanical garden with full time staff:

The process produced awful smells, but no moss.  Apparently, if your woods have suitable conditions for growing moss, then moss will already exist there.  Which was fine because I learned later that moss can be smothered by leaf debris.  So it has to be covered with netting in the fall or dutifully raked.  Raking in the woods.  Again.  Wouldn’t really make me feel like I was making landscaping progress.

Even if the path had its ups and downs, the brush piles did turn out to be a haven for wildlife.  As a matter of fact, once we started raising Muscovy ducks, several ducks made their nests in the brush pile.  Muscovies are naturally cavity nesters, but some were quite content with a hidden spot among the old brush, lining their nests with leaf debris and camouflaging the whole thing with loose sticks.  It was private, dry, comfortable.

Oh, and extremely deadly.

Eventually we’d wake to find a duck staggering around in the woods, her nest destroyed, her eggs eaten, her injuries anywhere from minor to life-threatening.  Because a natural habitat doesn’t only favor the birds and bunnies, chipmunks and field mice.  There’s an entire category of critters that feeds on the cute and adorable.  And living out in the woods is less like this:

And more like this:

Or this:

Or this:

One evening I found a duck thrashing around in the woods with a large black snake wrapped around her body.  In her desperation to free herself, she kicked out her eggs, which was apparently the whole point of the attack.  When the snake slid off her, he began gobbling up eggs as fast as she tried to roll them back into the nest with her beak.  I’d like to say I helped her out but I just stood there in complete disbelief, shock, and fear.  Because at first I thought the snake was trying to eat the duck.  Then I thought if I tried to help the duck gather her eggs I might get bitten by the snake.  Then I realized there was nothing to keep the snake from returning and repeating the horrifying process!  Welcome to the woods, Snow White.

Eventually we became quite skilled at pulling black snakes out of the ducks’ nests.  Even I was able to do it.  As long as I had a hoe or rake or shovel.  To steel myself for the task, I reminded myself that every lost egg was a $40 duck that wouldn’t make it to market.  And I screamed as needed.  (Screaming was always needed.)  Not everyone was afraid to grab snakes by the tail, though.  The kids made quite an effective snake patrol unit.

Eventually the majority of the ducks nested in the barn.  Landscaping goals moved on to lawns and vegetable gardens and perennial beds.  The path to the pond remained.  But it relied upon the kids going trekking back and forth to the pond to fish….

or visit their fort.

The pony rolling down to graze the greens on the dam.

Or the pig headed for a swim.

The goats did their share of keeping the trail clear, too.

Over the years the brush piles along the sides gradually disintegrated.  Eventually nothing remained of them but the largest of the trunks or the indestructible cedars.

But then, this happened:

When the ice melted, the paths to the pond were gone.  Obliterated.  Buried.

Which is how, 12 years after I started the job, I was right back to clearing the woods.  Hauling branches, rolling tree trunks.  Trying to avoid ankle-spraining holes under the leaf debris.

In the beginning I had the adorable antics of the goats kids to watch as I worked.

The piles of brush began building up.

Once the goat kids were gone, my own kids made a brief appearance.  So brief that I don’t have a single picture of them helping out.  I do vaguely recall some grumbling and complaining, hiding and sneaking off, while I picked up limbs and The Other Half used the chainsaw to cut up the largest downed trees.  And even after all that help, even with the brush piles increasing in size, the progress was not exactly noticeable.

So the goats got in on the action, too.

As I settled into the job, I noticed my path-clearing ways had changed over time.  Hanging branches were left alone.  I remember standing on cracked or broken limbs like this, jumping up and down in attempt to break them off so I could haul them out of the way.

But now I just looked at them and shrugged.  No need for all that effort to tear them down when time would do it on its own.  If I know one thing after 4 kids and 40 years of living, it’s that gravity pulls everything down eventually.  Trust me on this.

I didn’t fuss over the outline of the path either.  Originally, I took a shovel down with me and dragged it through the leaf debris, making 2 roughly parallel lines all the way to the pond.  Then I carefully hauled everything to those lines.  This time I eyeballed the largest, heaviest, hardest-to-move limbs.  And I decided that where they had fallen was the perfect place to make the side of the trail.

That’s because time makes you older fatter lazier tired smarter.  Work smarter, people, not harder.

And I left branches this size right where they fell.

Yeah, the first time around I actually picked up small branches and moved them off the path or, even worse, picked them out of the surrounding woods to add to the brush pile.  I can’t recall my thinking exactly, but I think those twigs threw off the clean look of the path.  Or were used to add symmetry to the piles so they were equally high on each side.  Oh, Snow White.  Why?  Why????

The main path to the pond is restored now.

The goats and sheep continue to nibble at the brush piles, peeling the young bark off the branches and giving it an interesting variegated appearance.  There’s no professional landscaper or paid garden staff that would bother to turn brush piles into works of art like that.


Well, no one who gets paid with hay and a scoop of grain anyway.

Walking on that path, amidst the towering piles of brush is like walking back in time for me.  Including the muddy pond, full from melted ice.

I suppose there’s something profound about finding yourself right back where you started.  Or pathetic.  But not everything is the same.  Losing all those trees let quite a bit more light in the woods.  And there’s moss growing everywhere.

Time heals all wounds, people.  Time heals all wounds.


One Response to “Flashback.”

  1. Aunt Ro
    April 21st, 2014 @ 6:50 pm

    Gosh! Reminds me so much of all of the clearing that JPR and BLR and all of the little workers did for so many years!! I remember when the pond was excavated; dynamite included. Recall one day 55 yrs ago when I was riding on the bulldozer with Bud Kusky. Saw a newly hatched painted turtle in the muck, and jumped down from the (moving) bulldozer to rescue it. Was surprised to see Mr. Kusky’s hair turn white, right before my eyes. Seems like I was in trouble for a while
    but couldn’t understand why at that time. Thanks for the reminders!

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