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Category: A Writer’s Desk

Circus Train Wreck

Posted in A Writer's Desk

Circus Train wreck 1Our farm is on the top of a hill on the edge of the Allegheny Front, and at one time a railway ran along the base of the same hill, descending the front. Every day we cross the trackway (now bare earth) at McCann's Crossing, and pass the memorial for the Walter L Main's All New Monster Shows Train Wreck of Memorial Day, 1893, claimed at the time it occurred to be the worst tragedy in circus history.

There are local verbal accounts, not all of which seem to be substantiated by the on-the-spot news coverage of the day.  One rumor claims the wreck was caused by one drunk Jake Friday, sleeping on the tracks (which may tell you more about the reputation of the extensive Friday clan in the area than about the disaster).  Apparently the circus elephants were harnessed to help pull the wreckage apart.  There is supposed to be a large pit grave for the dead animals at the memorial site (most of the circus horses died, as well as a few others).  Hannah Friday meeting the tiger while milking her cow is still a popular story, no doubt partly because the official memorial refers to it.

As the memorial declares:

All the animals that were not shot were finally accounted for.  The snakes were never recovered.

(A nice bit of writing, that.)

Excerpts from a variety of contemporary news accounts…

Respecting boundaries

Posted in A Writer's Desk

Not my photo.  I was too busy shooing 2 dogs and 3 cats away.
Not my photo. I was too busy shooing 2 dogs and 3 cats away.

Part of the pleasure of living in a log cabin is the imagined sympathy for my predecessors here, especially in the extremes of cold weather. This is what it was like for them, I say to myself, as I throw another log on the fire (or turn the thermostat up) while I listen to the howling wind (and turn another light on). It’s a harmless indulgence to look upon the past nostalgically from the comforts of the present.

But every now and then I am reminded that some things really do never change. Not only is the Nth generation of the critter in my walls a constant, noisy reminder, but there are other dramas that play out which are no respecters of human boundaries.

Log cabins don’t need much maintenance, but it’s a good idea to perform an annual external inspection to look for new knotholes where old knots have fallen out. Most of the interior walls have secondary surfaces instead of bare logs, but we’ve found shed snake skins in the attic and it’s always been clear that other things may live between the logs and the wallboard, both predators and prey. My father-in-law was once doing the rounds with a bucket of cement looking for holes, and watched a black snake slither into one log before he got there. Left with the dilemma of whether to leave the hole open for the snake to exit again, or proceeding with his task, he cemented the hole (which tells you a lot about my father-in-law).

So, we came home yesterday to find this interloper in a crowded upstairs room, with one of our ambitious but inexperienced cats sitting next to it, wondering what he would do next. This was a young snake, maybe a foot and a half long, and he had his head hidden in his coils, like the picture, presumably because the cat was similar to predators he would encounter outside and he was hoping she would go away.

And sometimes you get the bear

Posted in A Writer's Desk

This time the bear lost. I heard the clang of my metal birdfeeder below my office window at 2:00 AM and hastened downstairs with all the lights on and shouts of “get outta here, bear!”

Didn't see it, but the feeder was on the ground, in the process of being emptied, and its post pushed over. The bear's still ahead on points, however – I saved one feeder, but he (she? they?) got three last time.

None of these pictures below are mine, but for those of you who wonder what black bears at birdfeeders are like…

Aha!  The fool bought another birdfeeder.
Aha! The fool bought another birdfeeder.
I know how to deal with that.
I know how to deal with that.


The squirrel guard is a particularly nice feature.
The squirrel guard is a particularly nice feature.
See, kids?  This is how you do it.
See, kids? This is how you do it.


Now you try it.
Now you try it.
What probably happened to my prior birdfeeders.
What probably happened to my prior birdfeeders.

Bears and birdfeeders

Posted in A Writer's Desk

Southviewcabin1We have a family tradition, here at the cabin, of feeding the birds, in the wintertime and well into the spring. The main room downstairs, built into the hillside, houses the fireplace, kitchen, and all the comfortable chairs. From there we can gaze out through large windows at the birdfeeders, swaying gently on a pole, sheltered by the trees. You can see the red one in the picture, and we added another pole-hung feeder this year. Each pole holds the feeder about five feet from the ground.

The black bears also have a family tradition. Each year, in spring, while other food sources are still scarce and they haven't been awake very long, they drop by looking for a good hit of sunflower seeds and flint corn. And if the humans are in residence, they generally find it.

My father-in-law lived in the cabin for about ten years. Each year he would report on the annual raid. If you think squirrels at the bird feeders are a nuisance, you should try black bear. Sometimes they would bend the pole down so they could get at the feeder more easily.

Bird feederSo, this morning we glance out of the window, and the hanging feeder is not only down, it's demolished, disassembled into various parts. I laughed smugly at the news, secure in the knowledge that the other two feeders I put up this year (very like this picture), that were suspended from a beam extending out from the bottom of the second story porch in front of the cabin, were intact. Until I turned my head to check that assumption.

Those feeders were not only pulled down from their beam, and separated from their top components, they were missing altogether. Unless that bear had a buddy or a duffle bag, I don't see how it could have carried them both off.

Meanwhile, my desk looks out of that same window on the second floor that you can see in the top picture. I am surrounded by indignant cardinals, sparrows, nuthatches, finches, woodpeckers (suet was included), junkos, jays, and noisy chickadees, all looking for their breakfast and demanding a better level of service.

How do they do it? Perhaps you'll find this link illuminating…

I imagine it was something like this. The dogs slept through it all.

If you want to keep score, see Human vs Bear, part 2.


The Way of the Walnut

Posted in A Writer's Desk

Our busy concert performer
Our busy concert performer

Many writers like to speak at length about the music playlist they use when they write, different tunes for different moods, and so forth. I thought I should tell you about mine.

As I've mentioned before, we live in a log cabin (with an addition) that was built in 1812 out of big heavy squared-off logs. The bottom floor is stone, built into a bank. This was our hunting cabin/vacation home, but now it's fulltime.

There's a big room upstairs with paneling on the inside instead of bare logs, and one stretch of that, where a doorway was cut through the logs to give access to the addition, has something that lives within the walls, between the paneling and the logs. Well, actually, lots of things live within the walls, if you count the black snakes that come in to check out the mouse population. We don't bother them, and they don't bother us.

Anyway, we think this particular pest is a red squirrel (though we've never seen it). It has a walnut — plenty of black walnut trees around the farm. walnut-sketch1-200It's very fond of this walnut. It rolls the walnut all around this one stretch of wall, driving 3 cats, 2 dogs, and 2 humans absolutely nuts (so to speak). Then it gnaws on it. Loudly. At all hours. Where it's nice and warm, out of the snow.

So instead of iTunes, think of me with this constant, subliminal, walnut-rolling-around-inside-wall noise whenever I write. This has been going on for way more than one rodent's lifetime, so it must be passed from mother to daughter, down through the generations.

I just glanced outside and saw three separate black walnuts placed along the 2nd floor porch's banister rails. This is clearly a cache that the squirrel has forgotten about. For now. If it collects a few more, it can release an album.

Life on the farm

Posted in A Writer's Desk

It's always good to have backup utilities.

If we run out of oil, we have a fireplace and a woodpile. For water, we can melt snow or filter the spring. And, just in case, we have a two-door outhouse.

One door died years ago and has not been resurrected. The second door has a tendency to not stay shut. Porcupines gnaw the wood for the salt from human sweat.

And, apparently, it makes a great home for screech owls. Pardon the quality of the photo: I was using a cellphone through a car window somewhat coated in basset hound drool. (But isn't that how it always works?)

Pictures of more easily visible screech owls to the right
Pictures of more easily visible screech owls to the right