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Over a year ago Carol Duke began working on her ongoing series The Bestiary: Tales From a Wildlife Garden. She has documented some amazing visitors to her Massachusetts wildlife garden, and I’d like you to be able to see them all in one place.
Carol’s wildlife garden is located at Flower Hill Farm, a western Massachusetts Eco-Friendly Vegetarian/Vegan B&B and Retreat is a 1790 restored farmhouse with an attached artist/writer studio and barn (flower arranging and painting studio). The buildings are surrounded by rambling organic gardens, forest, marvelous sky and landscapes, cross-country skiing and snow shoeing on a twenty-acre hillside (ten acres are in wildlife conservation) in the foothills of the Berkshires just six miles west of Northampton, Massachusetts.
Thirty one years ago, when I began working on my hillside retreat, I had no idea how my gardens and landscape would evolve and change my life. My perceptions and awareness have never been far from where they are today even though when I began gardening/farming here, I had no idea of the native plants I would come to covet nor the diverse wildlife I would attract and offer habitat to. Today I am sharing some of the wildlife I have had personal encounters with in my gardens, fields and forest.
The American black bear (Ursus americanus) is a mighty and noble beast. I have not had the joy or trepidation of seeing one here at Flower Hill Farm for many years now. My neighbor did see one about three years ago in early spring, as he was driving by on his tractor. First he thought it to be a large dog but that did not seem to fit. Backing up he noted a large black bear standing up on its two hind legs attempting to open the French doors on the south side of the old farmhouse. Imagine the sight!
The White-tailed Deer Odocoileus virginianus is the second beast featured in Flower Hill Farm’s Bestiary. These beautiful chestnut, crepuscular creatures are mostly much beloved here at Flower Hill Farm. I know this is not the case for many gardeners and farmers. I do manage the land so that there is always a good supply of young woody saplings of oak, beech, birch and maples for the deer to browse on. The trick is to have plenty of tender shoots for them to nibble on so as not to be too tempted by my favored plants. Though, like all of us, deer do enjoy a diversity to their diet and I will lose some crisp buds along the garden paths during the growing season mostly.
On a lovely, verdant summer day, nearly two years ago, I am sitting before my computer editing, when a sudden, stealthy movement appears just beyond the barn studio door. I always remember this day as one of my luckiest, for I recall . . . standing . . . for a few irreplaceable minutes . . . not ten feet from this wild and impressive bobcat. I will never know exactly why the native Lynx rufus of the Felidae family does not quickly dash off at the sight of me . . . donning a camera face no less. I still wear a wash of wonderment, when calling to mind how the bobcat remains engaged in eyeing me, while I quietly let the screen door fall open and move out into the garden space not far from where he stands.
Our Eastern coyote Canis latrans var., is a good bit larger than its cousins out west. This handsome beast has wolf Canis lupus lycaon, genes – 300,000 years old at least – meandering in its warm blood mix. Some scientists believe that the endangered red wolf Canis rufus, met up with a coyote moving east, where others state that the Eastern wolf is the sire of the coy-wolf. To make things more confusing the red wolf is thought to be part coyote and part eastern wolf. Whatever the name or combination, wolves have been brutally attacked and pushed to the edge of extinction numerous times and now by gray wolves being removed from the endangered list and states allowing
hunting slaughter from planes . . . they are in great danger.
It is a rather bleak and chilly January morning, when I happily sight this striking red fox making her way into the 2009 winter fields and gardens.Yet another wild beast to thrill this observer. Flower Hill Farm’s ‘A Bestiary’ continues with the Vulpes vulpes vixen — at least I want to believe this to be a to be a female red fox, so that I can place those three v words together. I have only observed this feisty beast from afar . . . no growls or personal encounters (I have not tamed it!) to date, but I still feel the magic of the moments, when I chanced to see a red fox entering the fields and gardens.
One day in early June, when entering the middle meadow garden, I nearly do step right onto a little beastly body. It is a mystery to me as to how this unfortunate critter comes to his or her demise and ended up in the path. That is until I catch a flash of another furry beast. A dead vole lying feet up in the middle of the middle garden path . . . I stop and peered into the frozen fright and soon realize there is another character in this drama that is filled with fright as well. My presence must have terrified the weasel into dropping her prey in haste to get away. Giving the situation a second thought she considers how to reclaim her catch. It takes me a few seconds to understand and I move away from the vole . . . encouraging the weasel to come out of hiding.
I often note in nature the numerous quarrels, disputes and downright fighting matches between various members of the wildlife community. When I consider the enormous scale of violence within human species, it brings my mind to settle on the thought that ‘peace and harmony’ is somewhat of a myth or only temporary at best and and not the natural order of things. The mind must cultivate compassion to harvest an abundance of harmony. This line of thinking is directly linked to the seventh installment of my Bestiary . . . the beastly Cottontail Rabbits . . . and the lack of respect they have for boundaries of any kind along with the need of this farmer/gardener to nurture tolerance and acceptance, if not a change of diet.
Impressions have a way of staying with us long after a traumatic experience has past. Adventures with wildlife can sometimes leave one with permanent fears and prejudice especially when a violent encounter occurs. These threads of thoughts lead the way into my next installment of ‘A Bestiary’ . . . featuring the dexterous and discerning Common Raccoon. Going back into our forest of twenty four years ago, my son Sean, his friend Max and I are walking into the pine grove and towards a small spring where we notice a raccoon lying flat on its belly atop a boulder. The raccoon’s four legs are spread out and dangling over the large granite rock.
It is that hour when the hilly horizon loses its glow, color falls away into dusky gray values, as Veerys, Hermit and Wood Thrushes usher in darker tones of early evening. There is a softness to this time of overlapping day and night offering just enough light to see a dark form up in one of the gateway apple trees . . . a form out of place yet understood. I know at once what moves within the shadowy mass of black and that it is the cause of the center canopy’s dying branches. Second only in size to beavers, porcupines are good swimmers and like the beavers can use their tails to make an impact, a porcupine can wallop an attacking critter a painful if not fatal blow.
The Virginia opossum is the only opossum native to the United States and is of a solitary, nomadic and mostly nocturnal nature. Well, sometimes they may break the rules of our adjectives, as on a mild winter day of 2010, when I eyed this unique marsupial out in the snow. Food may be scarce forcing the opportunist, omnivorous opossum to search during the day. Perhaps that is why it was so curious about me . . . hoping for food. Not myself, of course, but with their superior olfactory potential perhaps the opossum caught the aroma of warmed bread drifting out. Virginia opossums do not hibernate which makes searching for food difficult in the harsh winter months.
As crisp autumn air sweeps trees free of leaves, that float and flutter like bright butterflies twirling and falling into heaps of leafy carpeting . . . A Bestiary . . . continues with the princely Eastern Wild Turkey. I half expect to see one, two or a flock craning their necks as they walk cautiously . . . not far from where I sit . . . around viburnum, rosa rugosa and hydrangea bushes . . . with all uneasy wide eyes directed towards any movement in this human habitat of barn studio, little studio and 1790 farmhouse. They have excellent eye sight and not only can out see anything I can but cover a 360 degree swath of view . . . making it hard to capture their portraits.
A Bestiary continues . . . with the raptor of the dead . . . the utterly critical and graceful . . . even when teetering . . . Turkey Vulture. Dark as a moonless night this new world vulture . . . nature’s silent black knight, Cathartes aura, emanates mystery while evoking macabre images from from the minds of many that view him. Turkey Vultures are truly remarkable diurnal creatures, preferring carrion to fresh meat and purifying our world as they dine. If you were to change the ‘C’ in its scientific name for a ‘K’ . . . you would have the Greek derivative Kathartes meaning . . . cleansing or purifier. It is hard to imagine our world without Turkey Vultures or vultures of any kind.
As chill settles in on this first day of winter, more anecdotal beastly tales unfold. Chance encounters with wildlife always strike me as quite remarkable . . . just being in the right place at the right moment and being in that moment is a gift of possibility and intention. Observing birds successfully demands our tuning into their world and knowing the sights and sounds to be aware of. Here are a few of the hawks that share the sky, gardens and forests of this Western Massachusetts hillside.
I was grateful for the warm and bright rays of sunlight that lit up the fiery red tuffs atop two male Pileated Woodpeckers who seem to be strolling along the ground together. The flashes of red captured my attention and I stood transfixed, in awe of these beautiful forest birds as they matched each other in varying gestures reminding me of thoughtful choreography. If this is a territorial contest between two Pileated Woodpeckers, I must say that these large crow-sized woodpeckers are very mild mannered, for there is nothing threatening in their act of mirroring one another’s movements.
Carol Duke is an artist and farmer, who has given much of the last thirty years to caring for her twenty-one acre hillside farm in Western Massachusetts. Her greatest joy in working with the land has been to see how her farm has become home to a diverse community of wildlife. Through her blog Flower Hill Farm, Carol shares the beauty of living closely with nature and how with careful consideration of conservation and only using organic practices, while being a steward to the land, one can create a true sanctuary for native flora and fauna. Her facebook and twitter pages are used mostly for action alerts to inspire activism towards protecting wild places and wildlife the world over. Flower Hill Farm has also become a Retreat for guests visiting the area from all over the world.
Carole Sevilla Brown lives in Philadelphia, PA, and she travels the country speaking about Ecosystem Gardening for Wildlife. Check out her new free online course Ecosystem Gardening Essentials, 15 free lessons delivered to your inbox every week.
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