Encounter with an Iberian Woodrat

0. Intro

We lived on the land
Of a land grant. It
Belonged to no one. I
Would realize, later,
That it all began
With a single stick of wood.
The dreams that started
Coming true were mine.

1. Not My Glasses.

We burned this enormous pile of brush Friday afternoon. Helm plus lighter fluid plus cardboard plus slightly aged cedar clippings equals conflagration.

After an early crash-out I am awake again at 3:36 on a Saturday at this old farm east of Iberia, MO. Stars stark, brilliant, rotating. I know where the North Star is now, it’s where it always is. Inside, the heater burns with orange light. Hugo situates on my sleeping bag. I can see my breath in here.

Helm is asleep in the next room. Fire smoldering in the cookstove, apparently banked. I added one small piece, ash.

Time comes, a man’s gotta blow his nose. Facts. The pile went up like a match yesterday afternoon, taking us both by surprise. I never went back down to look at it after taking away two shovels’ full of coal, kickstarting the kitchen cookstove with their glowing heat. Cleared undergrowth cleared into the atmosphere, its remnants warm a house.

I reached for a pair of glasses to write this by. Immediate blur. They weren’t mine. But I took a selfie all the same.

2. Saturday Morning Proper.

Later on Saturday morning. I had gone back to bed. I awoke when someone said my name. John. But there was no one there. Not even the other John. I dreamt it. Various dreams were fresh and vivid, running through my head like tadpoles.

In one of these fragments a coyote—¿or was it a wolf? In a dream the difference between a coyote and a wolf becomes imperceptible. The animal leapt over a river and into the room of the house Helm and I were in. Maybe we were on a houseboat. I was worried because Hugo was there with us.

In a distinct fragment, I was, presumably, going back in time to the night my friend Billy proposed to his—spoiler alert—now wife, Roxanne. It’s her birthday today. In the flashback, they are at a fancy restaurant and Roxanne has a very elaborate headdress on. Part flapper, part…Cleopatra. A blue headdress with a band around it. Maybe some lace skirting her forehead. But the signature feature of her look was silver, glittery eye shadow applied heavily. It was obvious she knew the proposal would be happening that night. That’s all I remember.

I had to go outside with the shovel immediately after waking again. It was cold and dark. Frosty. The shaft of the shovel, being metal, was freezing in my hand.

The thermometer sitting on a nail outside, on the north side of the house, indicates 16°. It’s really cold, the tree limbs are all white with rime but it’s not 16°. The weather app suggests it is 26°. Inside? 51°. A little cool.

3. The Hot Stove.

I had relayed to Helm what I read about banking a fire.

I restarted the stove without needing to set flame to its contents. Helm banked it before turning in this morning, at 1:51 a.m. He left a note.

Shortly after arriving yesterday he was looking through one of the kitchen drawers, in which there are dish towels and cutting boards and bottle openers and Sharpies. And a notepad on which I had written, ‘I miss you, Helm’ during some prior solo trip I had taken to Farm. I had buried the notepad in there, turned it written-side down. It was quite a reveal yesterday, because I was standing right there and I had no idea what, if anything, was written on the other side of the notepad. ‘That’s tight,’ he said, kind of laughing. I was embarrassed.

To bank the stove he had closed or mostly closed the bottom draw-gate (left side of stove). Added a big piece of wood, March 2018 ash, or what I initially believed was ash but over time I’ve gradually lost certainty about that designation. It very well could have been tulip tree a.k.a. tulip poplar. Either way it was probably the most recalcitrant wood I’ve ever tried to split. I had a couple trunks of the stuff. The other stump is still here, it’s my “splitting stump”. Some day I’ll throw it on a fire, or someone else will. It’ll burn for days.

The front-load panel for the cookstove’s firebox. That’s a Jewell Enterprise, folks.

Once the bank piece was in the fire chamber he scooped out ashes from the lowest left-side chamber, call it the ash box, and heaped those on top of the freshly added chunk of wood. The ashes are supposed to keep the fuelwood from burning too quick.

When I woke for the first time, at 3:36, I added a small block of wood, a piece I recently harvested from the U City Woodlot. Twas a piece of what I believe to be ash, though I’ve been wrong before. When I added the block of ash there was still heat coming from the stove and it was still nice and orange in there.

Later this morning I added twigs and shards through the front-load panel (the panel above the ash box). I bellowed into there for a bit, why not, get the lungs working? I made sure the flue/damper at the back middle of the stove was open, removing the back middle of six cast iron discs on the top of the stove to see whether the gate was open or closed.

The flue I’m talking about is to the back of the disc to the left. The lever that works this grate is pictured at the top right of the photo. Presumably the numbers indicate the model number of the stove.

Helm and I have had some discussion about this but I am contending that if this particular grate be open the fire’s output is directed straight out of the stove that way and out of the house through the chimney instead of, when this grate is shut, the fire being asked to go ‘the long way around’ the stove, circulating over and down around the right side of the stove to warm the oven compartment which comprises the lower third or so of the cookstove.

“La Granja”. Pretty cold out here this Saturday morning.
But I brought a very bright space heater that swivels. I’m leaving it here.
And I’ve got plenty of this stuff.

4. Robins and Waxwings.

The sun is rising. I’ve had a cup of coffee. Bob Dylan sings into this kitchen. The birds are stirring. NPR from CoMo. On the table: iPhone, green ink pen, coffee cup, bottle of Aleve, a field guide to the Insects & Spiders of North America, thermometer, Ziploc, crossword puzzle book, gloves, hand sani, field guide to Trees of Missouri, the complete Jerry Garcia songbook, headlamp, HD radio, kitchen towels, another thermometer, another pair of gloves, flashlight, guide to The Night Sky, two candles, two boxes of tissue, jug of water, my elbow (left), the seven of spades.

The birds take to certain trees as the sun fills the air. There were a couple dozen waxwings, crested and quiet, at the top of the honey locust near the long shed, what Helm calls “The Machine Shed.” Below the waxwings a handful of robins. A flicker or two.

Waxwings in the locust with the sunrise

The robins are the most active of species, criss-crossing the area from tree to tree, over the house, down the hill, away, back, low, high, a little heavy-looking in the air, almost always performing these acrobatic acts as a pair. Auburn, white, steel-grey.

Looking to the north-northeast, in the trees above the shed and toward the pasture, the waxwings are three dozen, basking in the sunrise, flitting only a little amongst the closely bunched crowns of the locust, one of the two large oaks, and several medium-tall ash and locust saplings.

I don’t know if it’s the sunrise light or if it’s how they really look but the waxwings have a yellowish hue. I’m contentedly without any binoculars. When the waxwings turn a certain way I can still see their starkly wedge-shaped, crested heads silhouetted against the sky’s clear blue background. A third or a quarter of the waxwings break off like a thought, regroup in the next tree, whistling only a little.

A dog barking from a direction I don’t expect breaks my awe. Someone hunting? The barking was to the east-southeast, in the direction of the pond, down the road that way. As I turned in last night—with a thud—I heard a diesel engine milling about right along the road along below the house. It was a little curious but I was so ready to sleep. And Helm was here. So I could ignore it and let myself go into slumber, nestled in my bag with Hugo.

I’d like to think it was Clifty, the former postman of nearby Dixon, or Welsh M, the onetime owner of the stockyards in Vienna. I know them both to be fond of hunting coyotes. Helm and I both heard coyotes in the dark last night. This morning as I was digging I heard a smattering of voices. Owl, coyote, human curses—my own, of me.

5. What Are the Oaks Out Front?

Hugo was much happier once the sun started doing its thing. The two feature oaks are visible behind him. Upper middle-right is the post oak. To the very left is the other feature oak, which I am not quite prepared to identify. Incidentally, over Hugo’s right shoulder is a much younger oak still holding its leaves. I have not yet tried to identify it.

I have gone out to these oaks, field guide in hand. There are two feature oaks as I stand at the front door and look straight ahead (north). The larger of the two trees I believe to be a post oak. Its leaves have blocky middle lobes. Its acorns were not remarkable; were sparse on the ground.

The guide notes for the post oak, ‘A broad, rounded crown and stout branches that are sometimes contorted.’ Check. It says that a post oak’s leaves have middle lobes that are ‘almost square, giving the appearance of a cross…the end lobe often three-notched.’ Check. The post oak, says the guide, ‘Occurs in mostly dry to rocky upland woodlands and glades.’ Check. I think of the rock out there as a glade, or at least a semi-glade. If a glade is a rock outcropping where not much grows. Even before we started all the clearing, there were some spots out there, under those oaks, where nothing at all was growing. Now, the glade has expanded. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Quercus stellata, the post oak.

The second of the two feature oaks, the one nearer to the house, halfway down the hill, I am less confident in identifying. Much less confident. It’s a slightly smaller oak but this size discrepancy could be due to age alone. Or it could be due to the depth of available soil before seeking roots meet sandstone. The oak above has more soil to work with.

I was ready to call the oak on the left a white oak, based solely upon examination of its leaves. But the acorns under this tree are so cup-proportion heavy that I have to rule white oak out and favor instead… overcup oak? For an overcup oak the field guide notes ‘an irregular crown’ and ‘twisted branches’. Check. The acorn would be ‘half an inch to one inch long, globe-shaped; cup covering two-thirds to nearly all of the nut.’ Check. But the geography isn’t at all right. The field guide doesn’t place the overcup oak anywhere near this part of the state or this county (extreme east-central Miller County). So where does that leave me in my identification of this tree? For the moment, I’m stumped. I’ll leave off by observing that this oak has some elements of a bur oak but I saw no hairs on the cups of its fruit.

6. Saturday Clearing.

Tarp, chainsaw, bright hat, brush pile. And somewhere in all that mess, a surprise awaited.

My chief objective for this farm trip was getting rid of a pile of locust limbs and other brush that was located just inside the pasture fence on the other side of the area that I have been clearing along with the help of Patrick and Helm.

There once was a honey locust at the far end of the machine shed, the east end that serves as part of the pasture border. At some point that locust, which I had noticed was dead, finally snapped off, leaving a trunk four or five feet high still standing but with the rest of the tree falling into the pasture or onto the top of the shed. In Early October I gathered some of these limbs and cut them up in preparation for Fall Farm Party. But some of the rest of this tree ended up in the pile pictured above, presumably by way of Karmack and his bulldozer. Before I started clearing the mess of weeds and cedar under the post oak, this pile was not remarkable. You couldn’t even have seen it from the house, or from the driveway. It was only visible if you were in the pasture, looking back down toward the house. But when I started breaking this pile down on Saturday morning, it was the main obstacle to a clear sightline from the house into the pasture.

The tarp has been key to what I consider my clearing breakthrough. It used to be I would clear weeds, limbs, small trees and then just pile them up next to the area I was clearing. OK, I had pulled a bunch of weeds and cleared some ground. But then I had a big unsightly pile of precisely what I was trying to get rid of. Then I started tossing all the cleared debris onto a tarp. Two Farm trips ago Helm helped me move pile after pile down to the area below the rock, our traditional Farm Party fire spot. Last time down Patrick was piling cedar limbs onto the tarp and moving them out of the cleared area before I was even on the job myself. In short, that tarp, which B and I used to put under our tent as a groundcloth, has been one heck of a useful piece of polyethylene.

Helm with a locust log. This photo was taken from the fence line, looking into the pasture. Handsaw on the left. The house and driveway are more are less behind me.

As I began clearing the pile I thought of the challenge as being similar to the completion of a jigsaw puzzle. I badly wanted to see it all completed at once but it wasn’t supposed to be easy. I needed to think of taking each element of the pile as a single piece to place. What made this particular bit of clearing difficult, though, was that the pile was situated right on top of two or three large and thorny vine-bushes. Everything was tangled in these thorny vines. I was constantly getting my pants or my long-sleeved shirt hung up on thorns.

Helm wanted to burn the pile in place and I was tempted to agree but I am not confident in being able to control a fire like that. Once he and I were both clearing, though, I caught a second wind. I got down on my hands and knees behind the pile, right along the fence line, where the thorn bushes sprang from the ground. I was cutting them off at their source. Void of their terrestrial anchor I could grab them on their terminal ends like ropes and back into the pasture like I was doing some kind of cross-fit training. It really is great exercise, a total body workout. High on endorphins I was telling myself, “They’ll be selling this workout in two years.”

The light starting to get pretty. Photo taken from inside the newly renovated farm lounge. Right on the other side of this aperture is pasture. When I suggested the possibility of sleeping in here, Helm said I might be awoken by a cow “nosing” me. In the distance, Helm is using the wheelbarrow to move sawed locust logs from the pasture for splitting by the shed.

7. We’ve Got Company.

Like the jigsaw puzzle suddenly nearing completion the pile was virtually gone. I had used the tarp to drag the piled debris to a new bonfire-to-be in the pasture. After the pile down below went up so easily yesterday afternoon I figured we could easily get this pile ablaze before dark.

The locust limbs split and hauled away, the thorny vines extirpated and lofted onto the pile, the only element of debris remaining where the brush pile once sat was a collection of tree detritus: twigs, leaves, the maroon pods of the honey locust. It was a curious collection, somewhat familiar-looking. I was grabbing at this melange with gloved hands and tossing some of it on the tarp to be hauled away. Doing this I stepped into a depression, wide but shallow. I started to get an inkling that I was disturbing a nest.

Moments later, as I was continuing to toss this loose debris onto the tarp I felt something pop out of the ground right from right between my legs. Something soft and alive, suddenly. I yelled out, a vague yelp of shock and confusion. The spot at which I stood wasn’t far from the area where I bumped into a copperhead when cutting medallions off a downed hickory in August. Helm heard my exclamation and asked me what was going on.

I couldn’t articulate. I was looking at this small, furry animal that had advanced only a few feet away from me before stopping right next to the jug of water I had up near the work area. Rabbit? Rat? Well, yeah, look at the tail, that’s a rat. But not just any rat, not like the one I saw in our kitchen when I took a break from listening to Joe Biden’s speech during the 2008 Democratic National Convention. No, this rat was a little larger, with large, dark eyes and grayish-white fur. It seemed very calm. It was a packrat. Also known as a woodrat.

Helm had just been saying how he heard something rustling about in the shed last night, toward the end of the shed where a large nest of some sort has existed for years. After researching images of various nests online—coyote, snake, opossum, raccoon, bear—I finally realized it was a packrat’s nest, identifying them as the most likely animal to be collecting honey locust pods. I’ve even noticed some of our freshly cut cedar kindling to have “wandered” from where we had left it in the shed.

The packrat just paused there by my water jug, for ten long seconds. Was it as surprised as I was? Was it sizing me up? I had never seen one before. Helm had a chance to get eyes on it, too. Then it scampered away, toward the shed. I felt bad I had pretty much wrecked its pasture lair. It had picked a good spot for a nest, under all that thorn-wrapped brush. The packrat could easily get in and out, without much worrying about a coyote or a bobcat trying to follow it in. I vowed to leave some cheese out for the packrat but I forgot. I owe it one. I wonder what shiny curio I might offer it in the way of apology.

8. Piles to Go Before We Sleep.

Attempting a second brush pile fire in two days.

Getting the second pile fire going wasn’t nearly as easy as the first. The locust limbs and the packrat nest debris was plenty dry. But the freshly cut cedar was not nearly as willing to spark up. Helm was tearing up cardboard and soaking it with lighter fluid before placing it at a few points around the pile. The cedar limbs would catch but their heart wasn’t in the burning. Helm kept at them with the lighter fluid. The sun was setting away, it was starting to get a little chilly. I wanted to get Hugo back inside. There were some small spots of fire here and there in the pile but it seemed likely they would quickly die out. We walked back down to the house.

I drank a beer or two, fed Hugo, changed out of my dusty and dirty clearing clothes, kicked off my work boots. Then I walked out to the stoop and reflexively looked up toward the pasture, that sightline now being so clear and inviting. And I’ll be damned if right in my line of sight wasn’t that day’s pile bright with flame, looking like a Fourth of July firecracker fountain. A beautiful red-orange of fire burning bright in the dying light of the day. I started laughing, I was just so happy and bemused.

Saturday’s pile was interested in becoming a fire after all.

Given a second chance at having a bonfire in the pasture, something I understand was a common occurrence at Farm Parties’ Past, but which I have never been involved in myself, I eagerly joined Helm and we made our way up to the pile, shovels in hand. Helm likes to work the perimeter of a big fire as it burns down, consolidating its girth, flicking straggler elements as they try to evade the burn by remaining on the fire’s outskirts. Ain’t gonna happen.

I thought about a much smaller pile of cedar clippings I had started a month ago above the rock where the pasture fence terminates high above the spring house. I ran over to that pile all giddy, grabbing month-old cedar limbs to take and throw on top of the burgeoning blaze. Five minutes, ten minutes later this pile was in full flame.

Me and Hugo!

I’m afraid I’m no use for details for the rest of the night. This Saturday account has gotten long enough already. We had a nice night in the kitchen. I did a poor job of packing the right food. I wanted salt. Helm saved me with some blue corn chips and salsa. Then he gave me a slice of his veggie sandwich from Planet Sub. Does it get any better? Music. Chess. Woodstove. Sharpie drawing of a jellyfish on water canister. Somehow we started talking about how we got to know each other. Helm described our friendship as coming “out of nowhere.” I couldn’t have said it any better myself. Goodnight.

8. Sunday Morning Sunrise.

I stepped out of the house and turned to the east to see this banquet in the sky.

The clouds were just right this morning for a pretty sunrise. I stepped out of the house to see if the birds were stirring when I realized the sky over the pasture was ablaze with color. I made a beeline for the pasture, straddling the fence near where we cleared yesterday, my tarp hanging over the barbed wire as a sort of saddle-stile.

What I beheld were some of the most varied and exquisitely arranged sunrise clouds I’ve seen in some time. Molten core in the distance. Just enough blue sky poking through. Heavier blanket in the back, mackerel sky upfront.

Even the trailer, the old TV and the busted canopy scaffold seemed to be in the right place.
There were still a few embers in the ashen footprint of last night’s bonfire.

9. Final Hours.

Sunday, five minutes past noon. The sunrise was for all-time but otherwise I am sluggish today. It was much warmer overnight and into this morning, compared to yesterday morning. There is wind, though. I set up my hammock in the newly cleared area. I had Hugo in there with me but he was nowhere near comfortable.

We will leave in two or three hours. I have no motivation. I told myself I was just going to try to relax this morning but I don’t know what to do with myself here if I’m not clearing or messing around with wood.

After the sunrise I went out and started walking, shovel in hand. I was looking for a place to spread the mix of seeds I had set aside: milkweed, butternut squash, and several garlic cloves. I was down toward the road, then toward the Little Tavern Creek. It was flowing well, sounding and looking pretty. Hugo went up and took a sip from it.

I scaled the rock and was using my shovel to scour off chunks of humus where young plants were taking root. I feel bad for scraping them off and tossing them to perish but it’s from the smallest bit of substrate, usually moss, that the rock repopulates with flora. There’s a section up at the top left of the rock that I did not clear this fall because it was heavy with poison ivy. I was trying to get under the inch or two of soil there with my shovel blade but I didn’t have the leverage I needed to pop what must have been roots from a nearby tree. I needed clippers, I needed to wage hand-to-hand combat but I figured that could wait until next time.

Helm’s note reminded me that late last night or early this morning we oiled and seasoned a couple of taters and put them in the stove’s oven compartment.

Helm woke up a few hours ago but just to go pee. He asked me if I had eaten my tater. I had taken only a couple of bites. There was flavor but by that time it was only lukewarm. Still, I had put it in the big front pocket of my hoodie and it was there ready for me when I wanted it.

The noon sky is marked with contrails and high, patchy cirrus. The morning birds have pretty much scattered. Where do they go? To the creek? I thought I heard a kingfisher’s rattle from down by the creek this morning but I’ve never seen one here. I’ve heard that rattle here before but I’m not certain it’s a kingfisher that is making the sound. What else it could be I don’t know.

Up in Karmack’s field along Redbird Lane I saw ten turkeys—a rafter—slowly strut their way across the opening, disappearing into the brush on the other side of the road. When I was in the hammock I drew the company of a couple of black-capped chickadees. It was sunny then but the sky seems bent on clouding up. Helm and I planned to walk along the northern side of the property before leaving.

10. Poem Postscript One: Low Pasture.

Smoke stink, chimney craft
Old everything,
To be outside, hill,
Washed out drive, sunrise,
All the constellations, trees
Lose leaves, I gain views of
Nearby land, corrugated metal,
Thorns, honey locust, local berries,
Sumac, bramble, downed tree,
Downed limb, ash congregating
With locust, a symbiosis? Grass.
Cows. Gate, post, tattered
Shirt worn by time, the road,
Gravel, water table, the
Land leaks, I veer
From spot to spot, creek,
Rock, end of fence at height
Over spring house, lower
Pasture full of weeds, not even
The cows go there now.

11. Poem Postscript Two: Neighbor’s Gate.

Neighbor’s gate, neighbor’s field, eye bounty, patched fence, old trailer full of wire. Don’t go in there, they said. They said I’d be shot. We just looked, we turned to a dry creek bed, peopled, unpeopled. Fallen onto by cedar. Cedar down, cedar bent, cedar still livin’ like a lichen, on the stone, it rains, we drink, the wind, we hear, the sun, we see. Night, coyote, owl, star, meteor, satellite. Satellite of the mind, of a kind, Triangulum, Delphinus, Sirius, planet. Fence, step over, barb, pants, crotch, slow, easy, sidle, straddle, step, breath, stretch, stop, look, tarp, glove, water. Wood. Weed. Earth. Vine, thorn, hole, leaf, hour, minute, day, pile, limb, twig, thought, idea, fragment, sentence, repeat, back to me, face, hat, holler, beard, gust, sway, turn, wave, pass. Cedars in the grove. Creek bed points down. Cows graze, stare, wait, wait for what. They hear, all the engines, any engine. We have nothing for them. Me in my bright hat, no truck, no gun, no hay. Nuisance, smoke, two-stroke moke. Mount, two backs, in the field, whatever, open, transfer, translate, break down, can’t see, can’t hear, deer. Count to ten, flashes, floaters, the sun persists, the frost appears, the frost is frozen air, it’s everywhere, then never.