by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch
Margins are the remains or remainder, as in that portion or strip or corner which isn’t included in the cultivation, scrutiny or balance sheet. Which also speaks to bottom lines, that portion which ‘remains’ when costs are subtracted from expenses.
Margins may also be about perimeters as definition. Margins are often thought of as delimiting as in ‘to reduce to the essential quality’ but also limiting as in ‘the effect was marginal.’
Less of the definition of the word and more of its tangible value, margins (as in wild and waste areas) on farms and ranches house and protect the secret ingredients of balance and vigor. But margins may also be aspects of cultivated areas, as in the depth of cover offered to wildlife by a tall crop.
Margins may be big or little things but they nevertheless figure in the equations for warp, weave, health, fertility, vitality and sustenance. LRM
We hear the earth breathing through the rustle of the margins. That single cow elk, as she escapes, parts the Triticale stems in one land and then, passing through the next, shakes the field peas clinging to the beardless wheat stalks. The beat of the wild turkey’s wings sends the sage rat scurrying in full view of the circling hawk until the rodent disappears ‘neath the carpet of irrigated clover. These things happen for us only when we are listening and watching. Who’s to know what the earth’s breath attests to when no one is near, or within the margins, to hear, to see?
Ours is a farm inside of a ranch which is nested inside of a forested landscape connecting to public and private lands each with differing priorities yet in their knit forming a wildlife stretch inviting natural migrations and nesting zones. The fact that we have farmed here quietly and organically for more than three decades has graced the stretch with a lazy and welcoming comfort. And we have long enjoyed the measurements of that comfort, of that stretch, of those families of creature.
Recently we’ve noticed substantial changes in the makeup of our creaturedom. For example, in and around our old farmhouse this summer I’ve seen a half dozen flies, a handful of ants, two earwigs, no horn worms, one dragon fly, no honey bees (ours winter-killed and no new ones could be found), no ants, no hornets, few mosquitoes, very few butterflies and one lady bug. This isn’t good. I am certain it has some bearing on why the swallows have not returned this year. Hundreds of swallows have been replaced by a dozen resident crows and thirty-three sixpacks of ground squirrel.
We miss the swallows. We understand they must go where the food is. We do not plan on artificially influencing the population of flies and mosquitoes. I know full well that if I were to bring ten cows in twice a day to be milked, flies would return in force and so too the swallows. I’m not, at this advanced age going to gather dairy cows, but we do hope to gather more and various poultry and that just may accomplish the same thing.
We love the dancing aerial swirl of bug-eating swallows, it’s what we need. We need the reassuring evidence that all is right with God’s natural world. We look for the swallows, and the bluebirds, and the coyotes, and the elk tracks. We look every day for evidence that balance is still apparent, for balance, to us, defines health.
As the story goes, miners took canaries deep into the coal mines to serve as warning signals. If the canary dropped from his perch they knew the air was bad and getting worse, and the miners skeedaddled back to the open air. I see and feel insects as the proverbial canaries in the coal mines. When the insects are gone it means something is wrong in the natural world and getting wronger. But we don’t have anywhere to skeedaddle to, in this case the mine is our planet, our sole and wondrous habitat.
There are store-bought scientists and pretend scientists who scoff and note that such observations simply point to the cycles of nature. They choose, for political cover, to deny the parts played by insecticides, fungicides, herbicides and such. Sure, they argue, the insects here may be naturally down in number this season but next season they could be up dramatically and then, they say, watch as you weird and fickle kitchen-drivers of biology sound the reverse alarm? Sure the planet may be getting warmer but that, they argue, is a natural phenomenon and will right itself with time. Deep down, I hope these myopic theories have some truth in them, but I refuse to relent in my belief that coal mines, internal combustion engines, chemical agriculture, and for-profit governments are destroying this planet’s biology. All of this paragraph is an unfortunate necessary aside to the more interesting and useful observations of nature’s indicator of balancing equations, what some humans insist on demoting by calling ‘wildlife.’ And wildlife and their environs can be such a nuisance, huh?
Not so for us on this ranch. Wildlife and their magnificent environs are basis for us and a frame for our farming. We strive to share and complement our time and space with them. All of them.
My wife Kristi is a proverbial goddess of wildlife, her sympathies and empathies for the bugs and the deer and the coyotes and the badgers and even the buzzards, might, in some society, set her up for ridicule. Not here though, not on our farm and ranch, not within our forest domain, certainly nowhere within our wildlife stretch. As the sensitivity and artistic brilliance of her incredible photography often attests, the deeper worth of her held sentiment lays somewhere in the tangle. For example; the forced contradictions of nature’s extremes for her aren’t contradictions, sometimes they aren’t even difficult choices. Should she observe that young wild turkeys are being threatened by a circling coyote she will reach for her 30.30 in a heart beat.
Now, there is the risk with this telling that you come away thinking she and I are guilty of romantically trying to artificially control the balance within this habitat. That’s not altogether true but then again perhaps it is. We do care. And after all, we are here, we farm here, we live here and we know the choices we make and the actions we take have consequence. Farming keeps us close to the ground all of the time. We see and feel the consequences. Over 30 plus years on this spread, we now begin to see the lengthening of consequential time. I planted those Poplars 31 years ago and now they are so tall they make me dizzy with concern that they might poke holes in the sky. Kristi has decades old Lilac and Honeysuckle bushes so dense and luxuriant as to form habitat margins of their own. She looks out her kitchen window into the shrubbery to watch song birds and wild rabbits both loopy and calm in their comforts. She sits on our rickety deck on summer afternoons watching the finches and red-winged blackbirds flying gleefully from cat-tail-fringed pond to bush to tree to yard feeders. And she forgets that I keep track as she says to me “the gold finches are my favorites’ then a little later, “the humming birds are my favorites” and then “I miss the swallows, they are my favorites” and then “the blue birds are my favorites” followed by “the red-winged blackbirds are my favorites.” No, she’s not senile, far from it. And yes, she is telling the absolute truth. One way I know is that she never says “the starlings are my favorite,” or “the crows are my favorite.” She is discriminating. And she is keeping score all the time.
Nature does play out in ways that encourage score-keeping as well as testing of assumptions. Here’s an example: We raise free-range peafowl. Our family of two dozen birds has survived for decades replenishing its own number each year. I try not to feed them, preferring to have them fend for themselves off bugs and the scattered seed and grain leavings of a working farm. Kristi feeds them. She feels they need feeding and, where possible, protecting. I don’t, I see how they survive the worst winters, the nastiest storms and all the natural predation. In open weather, at night, they fly up in the Juniper trees to roost (never in the cottonwoods or poplars – those belong to the owls and hawks). In cold, stormy and inclement weather they roost under-cover, high in our little barn.
One bright, recent summer morning, chores done, I left our outhouse to a wild ruckus of crows and peafowl to witness 7 corvine in a pile pecking at something they had pinned down. Because they were ringed by screaming peafowl, I imagined these crows were killing one of the young peahens, and I trotted over. Before I got there, two of the crows were flung from the pile by an pair of enormous wings and I watched a squirrel escape from the middle of the scattering pile to run under my studio. Rising up from that murder of crows was a large, stately Great Horned Owl. She is a resident of the ranch, we know her and see her many evenings but seldom in the daytime. The owl gathered herself and bounced a short distance to get under the pickup truck for cover, with crows and peafowl in chase. (So the owl had caught a squirrel and the other birds had jumped in to rescue the squirrel and save the day? or?)
The crows cawed and the peafowl screamed until one peacock ran under the pickup and attacked the owl! Freeing itself, the big, night-predation bird ran out and took off for the trees with that peacock, and then all the peafowl plus all the crows, following in threatening pursuit. I like to imagine the owl was still young and mumbling to itself in that way that owls do; “now I remember why we hunt at night.” A wild, comedic and unpredictable balancing dance of feathered critters the soundtrack of which said in my ear “right-with-the-world, right-with-the-world.”
And for those readers who still believe in fairy tales, my wife has a wild pet toad who lives on or under our porch. In the spring and summer he often comes out of an evening and looks for Kristi to remind her that they have shared unfinished stories. Should she happen upon him, she’ll lift him gently, whisper little admonitions (‘hey big guy, you shouldn’t be out here, back you go under the deck’) and ignore his pleas for that kiss that would return him to the shape, smile and sonority of George Clooney.
These stories are on the inside of where we live and work. The outside, out across the wider area of some 150,000+ acres, though subject to the presumptions and re-creation of man, still uniquely holds natural balance as key.
Our farm/ranch, surrounded as it is by public forest lands, is central to a diverse wildlife habitat that stretches in migratory fullness from the tops of the Cascade mountains down to the canyoned, bottle-necked convergence of streams and rivers. It is a desert and forest triangle of rimrocked grasslands crisscrossed by thick and thin forest. This wildife stretch is a crazy quilt of habitat margins and hidey holes. It is a place where ten deer, fifty elk, three coyotes, or a cougar might disappear from view in the span of half a dozen quick steps. Blending in. These things still thrill me even after more than seven decades of life perhaps in large part because of where I came from.
In the 50’s I was a ghetto child, growing up in southern California, with a big Pennsylvania Dutch / Wisconsin farmboy, carpenter dad and a tiny Puerto Rican, social worker mom. All around me were black, white and hispanic kids. We grew up together, did things together.
I was not raised on a farm. I was raised in the suburbs of Los Angeles where truest wilderness did not exist, where it was impossible to look in any direction without seeing people smack dab up against one another. And that was well over half a century ago.
I grew up dreaming of what it might be like to live in a wilderness. My father shared his never-to-be-fulfilled dream of putting us all on a 75 foot sailing ketch and hauling goods from island to island in the South Pacific. That fed into my desire to crawl into the darkest low interiors of tall forest and make friends with raccoons and crows, and raise and train a big fat squirrel to ride on my head, tail back, to imitate a fur hat. Childhood silliness, I know. But all those sensations, curiosities and desires still reside as memories in this old brain. Imagine with me today my joy in each waking hour to find that I achieved that wider goal. (Please tell your children that as an adult I do not recommend live squirrels as pets or hats.)
With that background I do understand how so many city people find immersion in a wildlife habitat as unpleasant, as a scary thing, even yucky. (Where do those bears poop?) Most of those same people, truth be told, also find livestock farming to be frightening and dirty. But there can be no argument of its necessity. Farming and wildlife feed us all with more than just food, they feed us with balance.
And yes, it can be genuinely life-threatening to farm as well as to go into the wide wild woods. Farming with nature and working in the wild both require constant vigilance. That PTO shaft or chain drive is arguably more of a threat to the casual person than a cougar, bear or rattlesnake. But from experience I can tell you that it is far safer to farm or walk in the woods than to walk in cities after dark, to cross busy streets, to lean out of the windows of tall buildings. The unique difference is that your posture and attitude in the city doesn’t usually affect the balance of life in that city. Where as the opposite is true on the farm and in the margins of the woods.
Taking fullest advantage of the margins around our ranch is a staggeringly beautiful array of feral creatures. But realities of their difficult lives may result in sickness, frailty, and tragic premature deaths the view of which takes much of the romance and luster away.
Our mule deer population remains down from years past. Where once there were tens of hundreds in view now there are only 3 to 4 hundred in our spring and fall fields. We have been experiencing ‘wasting disease’ in the mule deer population for a few years now. That has reduced the numbers. Also some of the wildlife biologists contend that the deer tend to stay away from Elk haunts, and our irrigated fields have certainly become that. In one forty acre irrigated hay field, before dawn, my brother frightened that grazing nocturnal September elk herd and when those several hundred crop-stealing, overgrown goats broke to run the ground shook.
Over our first twenty years on this ranch, the elk herd numbered fifty plus or minus. We now have a late summer herd that numbers from two to four hundred. I see that as imbalance, unless the herd is worried enough to move frequently. When that number of elk are comfortable enough to bed down and eat their fill, they can destroy a hundred acres of alfalfa or oats or grass in one or two nights. We are pleased to provide them with a place to get a drink and a snack as they pass through. But we cannot afford to farm just for them. We need to find a balance. We need them to keep to the margins. And one way that happens is for them to be worried towards cover, worried towards the forest. Natural predation does that. During hunting season, people chase the elk herd hither and yon. Otherwise, the only natural predator for elk in our country are cougar – sometimes called puma, sometimes called mountain lion, and seldom called catamount.
We have them all around us. We see sign. Sometimes, a hundred mule deer will be lazily grazing in our alfalfa and suddenly bolt and run, all of a direction. Cougars come to mind. Rarely do we see them. Once, some years back, I was out changing irrigation pipe in the middle of a forty acre field. It was a hot, clear, summer’s morning, no wind, very quiet. An ear piercing cougar scream, from out of nowhere, froze me in my spot, I closed my eyes for a second. Then opened them quickly and very slowly turned to look all around. Nothing, no sign.
We have sandy glacial soils which, when wet, hold tracks very well. Years ago we had a thirty year old saddle horse which, one afternoon, had trouble getting up and down. Next morning I went to see how she was doing and found her dead, belly ripped and entrails gone. She had long claw tracks on her flanks, and the ground had fresh cougar tracks all around.
Cougar do not forfeit their game, it had to be somewhere close. I went home for my Winchester. When I got back the carcass was gone. Following the light, two-hoof skid track, I found it again an eighth of a mile away, through a fence and into the margin that is bitterbrush and sage. No sign of cougar and the ground too rocky to track. Again I knew it was near and watching me. And what’s more I knew it was a powerful cat to have lifted most of the gutted horse off the ground. I pondered whether to call the state trapper or get a tag to go after it myself. But then I realized, there was no need. The horse was near the end of its life when the cat found it. And, within two days, absolutely no sign of the carcass was found. A balancing action complete. Cruel, swift and natural. Not a drop of romance anywhere.
We’ve been here thirty plus years. Resident cougars have made themselves known to us less than a dozen times. And I have actually seen them on or near the ranch only two and a half times. Twice crossing the road. And once, that half time, after dark, in a tree next to our front deck. I say half time because what I saw was a pair of red eyes staring into my high powered flashlight. What I believe to be a big cat was directly above a deer stuck in the mud at the edge of our pond. When I went in for the rifle, I heard a splash and our stock dog, Lucky, growling and barking. It was so disconcerting and difficult to see that I almost shot my dog as he returned. Next morning I found the carcass of the doe in the pond. That’s when I understood that our homestead IS a margin as well. And that we, at our best, were working pieces of the wildlife regime.
Back to my census taking of this year’s critters: our home family of nighthawks seems about the same. Bats are way down in number. After a fierce windstorm we did have three fatigued seagulls in our pasture playing tag with four Canada geese. But the gulls are not amongst the regulars. What is regular for us are rattlesnakes. I do lament the fact that it seems like, this year, their number is way down as well.
Back in 1917, when our ranch was a cluster of homesteads belonging to Greek families (Veliotis, Pappas, et al) so the history books state, no one else wanted this land because it was desert, rocky and home to hundreds of rattlesnakes. But the Greeks knew what to do. They turned loose lots and lots of pigs which were immune to the snake bites. And pigs love to eat rattlesnake, will even root them out. In a few years the snakes were cut down to an acceptable number, which was still a lot. There is a National Geographic magazine from sometime around WWII I believe, that features a photograph taken in a cave of the world’s largest ball of sleeping rattlers. That photo was taken here on our ranch a quarter mile from our little house.
Rattlesnakes have long been an important piece of the balance puzzle. They eat gophers, sage rats, kangaroo rats, squirrels, and such. I have seen only two rattlers this year and I have seen the evidence of near on 14 million gophers. Out of balance. But I figure there’s a place where rattlers go to compare notes and one of them is saying ‘I hear of a ranch where we can get all the gopher we want…’
My friend and editorial consort, the poet Paul Hunter, lives in Seattle – that great post-apologetic, hi-tech and fermentalogical city-state borrowing space from the wilds of Puget Sound and, as such, surrounded by secreted wildlife waiting for its next opportunity to reclaim the local biological stew.
We, by comparison, live perched on the edge of the great basin, face forward towards a magnificent vista of the central Cascade mountains. This little ranch is surrounded by tens of thousands of acres of public forest lands providing hidey holes and tall nested thickets for a wonderful mix of wildlife who are also prepared to reclaim.
I’m thinking about this now because Paul in recent writings to me has shared his thoughts on margins, and what they mean to the vitality of farms and farmers. He encouraged me to write about the wildlife and margins of our ranch.
His immediate margins are very different from our own. But similar purposes are served. With the dense green vegetation of the Washington rainforest and the waters of the sound, the creatures of those margins can disappear with two steps or a dive in. With the arid high desert landscape it might take our resident wildlife a dozen steps, but disappear they do. Paul might look out and on a lucky day see the rising nose of an Orca pushing seawater aside as it reaches for joy or food. We have to settle for a Bald eagle on the wing or resting in a tree.
Recently, driving to the office in town, near the edge of our ranch I came around a treed corner to look right at a young cougar crossing the road. Tail in a strung-out ‘S’ shaped salute, wide ears framing the face turned to view me, it never broke stride entering sage brush, bitter brush, and finally juniper thicket to disappear completely, a magic act of self protection and delineation. And a clear indicator that this ‘feline warning signal’ was still at work, healthy in its prowl and curiosity.
Some margins are unique, thickened mixtures of wild forage separating forest or wetland or desert from ‘civilization’ or farming. Some margins are gathered back within their own thin, narrow, tangled, bunched, and starkly fertile as though oasis-like, where water and plant life mark the nervous balance between predator, hunger, livelihood and rest. All creatures know that there are essentials within that oasis, just as most creatures understand to pass within or through is to run the gauntlet of predation. Waiting in that lush thicket is likely the cougar, the coyote, the raccoon, the panther, the anaconda, the rattlesnake, the bird eaters, the cullers of cripples, the pluckers of the stringed instruments of wildlife and biological balance. True notes including sharps and flats, all of a particular symphony.
Some margins are vast tracts of water, prairie, woods, or sand. Proud urbanites often choose to see them as edges but in fact they still constitute the greater expanse of biological environs on this planet. And there is another environ, it is atmospheric. Our air, and the climate which orchestrates its density, liquidity, movement and consequence, is an undeniable aspect and force in the lives of all creatures, humans included. But today new arguments of rudderless fake science slap us all. Denial is something most parents come to understand as a treacherous minefield of free-spinning human rudderstock. Nature calls the shots but moneyed humanity has proven it can throw the game and guarantee disaster. The irony is that nature does not recognize this as a game. Nature will roll on with force.
We had only been on the ranch a couple of years when I traveled to our dry farm pasture, one morning after a lightning storm, and found my good young Belgian gelding Tip splayed on the ground. He had been struck by lightning. I buried him there in stoney ground, which meant a shallow grave. Weeks later, after predators had dug open that grave, I found his skull which now rests in my library as once again a forceful reminder that nature calls the shots, all the shots.
It has been a full and fascinating year of wildlife on our ranch. Perhaps, better said, I have been particularly receptive to the comings and goings of the creatures all across the stretch. A few weeks ago my brother first noticed an unusual hawk; bright red shoulders, short round tail, white chest and good size. Same day that bird came to sit on a post near me while I changed irrigation. Didn’t seem to mind my being close. I took some pictures and had to wave my arm to get him to fly away for a moving frame. This beautiful bird was most curious about us humans. Made me wonder if a Falconer had lost an exotic trainee. Kristi saw him again next morning. Her birding friends insist it is a Red-tail Hawk but my seventy-one years of shared space makes me certain it is not. One of our bird books shows the same bird and calls it a White-tailed hawk native to Brazil. My thoughts go to the interlocking of vast regions, each with its own set of indigenous wildlife, and how weather is a force in changing migration patterns and even habitat realities.
This year, my family of wild turkeys first showed up in our fields in May, two adults and five chicks. I went to the irrigated fields twice a day, every day and most times they were there in the corner, on the edge, near the cover of the bordering stone wall. Each time, gradually over a month, they allowed I get closer. The first attraction for them was a big grasshopper hatch in the grass and alfalfa field. Their low, intent, jerky walks, heads bobbing and shooting out to catch the flitting hoppers, reminded me of some prehistoric forms. I have watched this amusing family and gathered easy assurances from them until recently when I first worried as their number dwindled to 2 adults and 2 juveniles. Coyotes had found easy pickins’? But they are still with us, roaming from our yard to far corners of the fields, and easily slipping into the margins whenever threatened.
Our margins include nooks and crannies not always associated with the wild. Take for example Kristi’s greenhouse. Last summer she worried that her lettuce was getting eaten and laid in wait to discover the culprit. Her camera caught the two young, wild rabbits pictured below, convinced that the shelter of the greenhouse corner was a perfect margin to hide in. Maybe ‘hide’ is not the right word for to hide suggests fear and these little guys weren’t afraid, they were where they thought they belonged. They were safe, they were home.
I’ve rambled too long, but please know that I have barely scratched the surface. I haven’t spoken of the coveys of Quail, nor the Chukars on the hill, the blue clusters of Pinyon Jay, the proud chubby Badgers, the ridiculous Rock Chucks, the dozens of Dove, the rare Porcupine, the treacherous Raccoons, the Golden Eagles, the Goshawks and Red-tailed Hawks and small but mighty Kestrals. I haven’t talked about the Cinnamon Teal ducks and Great Blue Herons, and our pair of giant Raven. Margins matter in the nature of our ranch and farm.
I was out mid morning two days ago, changing irrigation pipe, when I noticed to my glee and warmth the swirl above me. Hundreds of Swallows had returned, not in Spring but in September. And I wanted to think that all was right with our world.