Monday, June 1, 2009

Whistling in the dark

Or dusk, at least.

After holing up in the house sorting papers during the heat of the day, nursing a case of poison ivy that would have been a serious safety hazard while driving, I ventured out to the pasture in the late evening to move electronet fences and give the sheep a new patch of red clover. It was a lovely evening, everything went smoothly, the pasture is clearly beginning to recover from the abuse it suffered during my sabbatical absence nearly 3 years ago.

In the waning light, I did one last stint at cutting dock seed heads, to prevent them from scattering a whole new crop of seeds. They are starting to fill out and turn a deep reddish brown, so the window of opportunity is closing fast. We've already cleared nearly all the pasture, however--just the north part of the northwest paddock remains for this task.

It's a satisfying task in several ways. For one, each snip of the pruning shears yields a nice big stalk, and the basket fills up fast. Also, the stalks are very prominent, towering above the red clover even, and so progress is very obvious. And it's a good mindless excuse to wander aimlessly around the pasture, traversing most of it in the process, and really having a chance to see what's growing in each little area.

This particular field has bands of red clover, mostly. The soil there is a Eudora/Kimo complex, which has been described to me as subterannean "drifts" or "ridges" of more clayey soil with sandier soil leveling out the valley, so the surface is flat but the profile is varying layers. I'm curious if the clover marks a particular portion of the "complex".

I was delighted to notice a grassy newcomer to the plant community there--tall spidery plumes of florets delicately dangling pale stamens in the sunset glow, a foot above the other blooming grasses. I had despaired that any of the brome seed we painstakingly boradcast on that field winter-before-last had take root, but these flowers demonstrated a nice patch of it. I'll monitor the sheep's grazing and pull them out before they eat these stalks (not nearly as tasty as tender clover), so that this little bit of brome will increase itself. The leaves seem a bit lost among the dense stand of blugrass going to seed, but the bluegrass will be more resisgned in the heat of high summer, and give the brome a chance.

Meanwhile, the sheep were joyously grazing in the paddock next to where Iwas working, happy to be back on the red clover again. Since they've been off it a few days, I'm letting them work back onto it slowly by re-grazing some recently grazed strips that are growing back nicely. That way they'll work onto the tall, as-yet-ungrazed clover gradually, and not bloat or founder from the sudden change.

An odd sound tickled the edge of my awareness, nestled into the backdrop of city traffic noises. It happened several times before I became really conscious of it, and even then I didn't make the connection. So when I began to be curious about it, and looked up, it wasn't a startled look, or I wouldn't have seen anything but the closing of brush after something large had passed through.

The soft "whew"--an exhalation, more than a vocalization--came from the other side of the perimeter fence, in the wilderness area. My glance caught a large brown form shifting in the grass and shadows beyond, and as the sound came again I caught the silhouette of two huge ears and long muzzle, and the source of the sound suddenly registered.

A deer, snorting. The first deer I've ever actually seen on Pinwheel Farm land, though I've seen signs of them, and seen them at the neighbor's.

I squelched my excitement enough to calmly lower my head and pick a couple more stalks of dock. It instantly occurred to me that my movements were like that of a grazing animal, from one bit of food to the next, and that I was in close proximity to the sheep and they were obviously not afraid of me.

I decided to continue my grazing pantomime, and see whether the deer might be more curious than afraid. Monty Roberts, the "horse whisperer", tells of actually taming wild deer by communicating with their natural body language which is similar to that of horses.

I also began a kind of whistling that an old friend, R, used to use to "charm" deer when we were out driving in the country. He would softly whistle a series of slow, random, two-note sequences, some rasing, some lowering. Once when we were driving out into a farm field to fish in a neighbor's pond, he stopped the truck and actually whistled the deer right up to the truck, no more that 10 feet away, staring at us with intense curiousity, trying to figure out what we were.

I am exceedingly poor at whistling--can barely make a sound at all most of the time, and never a clear note (to my lifelong chagrin)--but this "deer whistling" is something I can approximate if I set my mind to it. The poverty of my whistling actually makes it even more reminiscent of the deer's wheezing snorts.

I whistled, and grazed, and gave sidelong glances in its direction. It moved around, clearly curious, puzzled, not quite alarmed but a little anxious. I zigged and zagged closer, slowly, clipping dock heads and adding them to the "bouquet" cradled in my arm. It watched me more than I watched it. Eventually it decided to turn tail and run off into the woods--but it did linger for quite awhile, and I was able to get within 75 feet of it.

I'm glad I didn't have the new camera with me--or the old one, for that matter. It's a picture that will have to develop in your own imagination: the head of a deer silhouetted against back-lit early summer trees, peering between two nearer trees silhouetted along the fence line. This is a case where pulling out a camera would have foreclosed on the wondrous sense of, for a few minutes, being allowed to be a member of the deer's world.

An honorary deer may graze with pruning shears, but pointing a camera would surely be turning a predator's eye on the scene.