The Kindness of a Stranger
On Sunday afternoons when the weather was nice, my father often took my brothers and me on hikes at the various parks, arboretums, and beaches on Long Island. One day we went to West Hills County Park in Suffolk County, a conservation area known for its lovely trails.
As we stood on High Hill, reputedly Long Island's highest at an underwhelming four hundred feet, a woman emerged from the wood. She was riding what to me seemed the most beautiful horse in the world. (You can see that he wasn't even close.) His name was Major, and when I told the woman that I loved horses, she picked me up as if I weighed no more than a leaf, and placed me in the saddle.
There I was, a little girl laid low from years of abuse at the hands of my father, now seated on a giant of a horse standing on the highest hill on Long Island. For those few moments I was the tallest person on Long Island, taller even than my father.
I don't know if I ever knew the woman's name, but I do remember her as beautiful. Her jacket, breeches, and hair ribbon were all a matching forest green. How I wish I could tell this woman what she had done for me that day. For me it was so much more than a simple act of kindness. She'd lifted me up and placed me on a living throne. Until then such a moment had seemed as out of reach as the gold ring my extended hand failed to grasp when I rode the white Merry-Go-Round horses at Nunley's Happyland.
"White Horses Save"
One Christmas Eve, nearly fifty years later, I received a wonderful and touching gift from my husband Jim Engell. He knew all about my childhood, indeed, and when I started remembering long repressed memories, he was at my side with love and support. Aware of the symbolic importance that horses, especially white horses, held for me, he presented my with this poem:
"God's Dog," the Coyote (Part One)
That's how southwestern Native American tribes reverentially refer to the coyote. For the past twenty-one years I've had a number of chance encounters with the Eastern coyote. Larger than it's western cousin, it's now thought to be a wolf-coyote hybrid that a number of biologists and naturalists believe should more accurately be called the Eastern coy-wolf. The theory is that when farmers in the northeast nearly eradicated the red wolf, the few that remained mated with the next best thing--coyotes. The wolf-like characteristics seem to vary in the coyotes I have seen, but they are definitely apparent.
Here is one bold fellow surveying my pasture with equanimity. Taking into consideration the dimensions of his surroundings, he seemed at least forty pounds. (The Western coyote averages 15-35 lbs.)
Eastern coyote (Coywolf), Acton, MA Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2014
Here is a different coyote, also more wolf-like than his western cousin:
Eastern coyote, Acton, MA Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2014
The majority of my sightings have occurred not on our small farm but while riding my horse in the conservation areas and private riding trails that abut our property. On those occasions I usually traveled in the company of one or two medium- or large-sized dogs. When we were spotted, the coyotes would disappear quickly into the underbrush, wanting absolutely nothing to do with me and my entourage. One winter, when I rode without dogs, I happened on a pair walking along the trail ahead of me. When they saw me, they started to trot ahead but didn't seem terribly worried. They glanced back over their shoulders but more out of curiosity. I lost sight of them after they crossed a frozen pond and disappeared into the woods.
Over the years I've seen a variety of colors from the typical gray with touches of brown, to a light cinnamon (almost yellow) to a stunning all black one. I'd never seen hide nor hair of a pup until last year. It was July and the pouring rain put a temporary stop to the voracious deer flies. Accompanied by three dogs this time, as I came out of a wooded trail into a small field, I saw him, a pup certainly no more than four months old. He took off pursued by the dogs. I got off Elementa who was dancing around and thinking of bolting. Miraculously, the dogs came back when I called, not right away, but in a minute or two. We must have given the little thing a fright.
The sliding glass doors of our family room look directly out onto our pasture. Over the years I've seen foxes, turkeys, deer, snapping turtles (they come to lay eggs in my sandy dressage arena), as well as coyotes. Though the coyote encounters at my farm have been fewer in number than those in the woods, they've been longer. Why? Food, I think. Those of you who have been around horses know how dogs love manure. Coyotes are no different. They are also drawn to leftover grains of feed, mice, those buried snapping turtle eggs, and, of course, my one duck, my one chicken, and my one rabbit. Depending on the time of year, I've seen them in the pasture lying under the shade a tree, or sunning themselves in the soft comfort of my dressage arena.
At night we sometimes hear a howling coyote chorus of such stereophonic volume it feels as if the sounds are coming out of our very own bones. When I first heard it I was certain there had be a large pack right under our window. But, no, they were nowhere in sight. Also, coyotes are capable of what is called "the beau geste," an auditory illusion created by a single coyote's ability to emit multiple sounds that can become distorted as they travel through the environment. You might think you are hearing ten coyotes, but it is probably just two, maybe three.
Just as wolves have had to endure centuries of uninformed bigotry and aggression, so, too, has the coyote. What twenty-one years of living at Windflower Farm has taught me is that coyotes would much rather run than fight. The number of invectives directed towards them run from unfair to chilling. They are regularly referred to as vermin and pests, with men of "a certain age" calling them "Charlie." For those of you too young to remember, that is what US troops in Vietnam called the Viet Cong, our enemy at the time. Milder forms of uninformed bias simply assume that people are under threat by coyotes even when the animals are moving in the opposite direction.
Coyotes mate for life, though that life is often harsh and short. Litter size is usually six but can be as few as one or as many as nineteen. Only five to twenty percent survive to adulthood. The mother stays in her den with her pups for nearly five weeks, not allowing any other family members in. She lives on food her mate brings to her. When the period of nursing is over, she feeds her pups by regurgitating food into their mouths. The father and an aunt or uncle, usually members of a previous litter, all help in raising the pups. They are also known to adopt pups of a litter whose parents have been killed.
Hunters complain that coyotes decimate the deer population, but coyotes, like wolves, generally attack the small, the weak, and the sick. It is the human trophy hunters--those who want the biggest buck with the most points--who endanger the deer population by depriving them of their strongest members. And then there are those who seem to think coyotes must spend their nights dreaming how to attack and dispatch humans and must, therefore, be eradicated. In the United States in 2013 deaths from homicides was 263, 260. Death from coyote attacks that same year--zero!
Coyotes perform a vital function for farmers and ranchers by keeping rodent and insect populations under control. If coyotes turn to sheep, it's often because the land the sheep are on has been overgrazed and can no longer sustain a viable rodent population. One rancher in Washington state moved his stock to different pastures before they became overgrazed and incurred no losses due to coyote predation. Farmers and ranchers are also less inclined to use breeds of dogs that the Europeans have for centuries to protect their sheep and goats--the Kommodor, Kuvasz, Anatolian, and the Great Pyrenees, for example. There has been some success with donkeys and llamas, but the deterrent of choice in our good ol' USA remains a gun.
Coyotes are usually shy animals and will almost always retreat rather than fight. There is, however, one caveat: when coyotes believe that their pups are threatened, they will do what they think necessary to protect them. Two days ago, while on a ride on my horse Elementa, and with our dog Clem and our neighbor's dog Lucky, I unintentionally became that threat. I've never in my adult life encountered such ferocity, nor felt so terrified. Stay tuned for Part Two: When Coyotes Choose Fight Over Flight."
Glass Light Boxes
Sleep Magic Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2014
I have always been searching for alternatives to the usual picture frame to display my images. The above is a copy of hand-colored photograph I took of my Andalusian Navarro (now owned by a dear friend). The glass blocks are 8"x8"x3". These have an opening at the bottom which allows me to insert the photograph as well as a short strand of toile-wrapped holiday lights. These backlight the photo to give it a three-dimensional effect. Here are a few more examples of horses:
On to Cats:
Dog (in future more to come):
I collect Victorian images and this is one of child and dog captured my heart:
With the exception of the poppy and alium garden photo, I took these in a friend's Concord garden.
Upon seeing the finished product, a well known crafter urged me to sell them as gifts. So, in my never-ending quest to pay my yearly horse show fees, I am in the process of opening a store on Etsy, an e-commerce site that focuses on vintage and handmade items. The light boxes look wonderful on mantle, countertop, or bookshelf and make a comforting nightlight for adults or children. I have one in my bathroom, which saves me from having to switch on the overheard light.
They are currently selling for $25.00 plus shipping and handling. Each one is assembled by hand.
I will post my online Etsy shop shortly, but if any of my readers want a light box now, please contact me via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
I promise the next blog entry will be within a week. There is lots going on here. Next week I am taking on of my students to a hunter pace, the next to a horse show. There is a huge patch of dirt in my backyard begging me not to forget my promise to turn it into a garden before weeds overtake it, again!
Thank you for reading The Windflower Weekly, and I will see you soon--
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