Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Legend of Zorro-- Chapter 3 A dog-like day

Zorro wasn't too sure about Muscade when he first arrived. But it didn't take long before he started tagging along in her shadow.

A few days after Zorro's arrival:
Muscade, our 11 1/2 year old, 60 pound golden retriever/golden lab mix, and I have our morning routine down pat. She escorts me to the barn and supervises while I do my chores. When I traipse to the manure pile with a filled-to-overflowing wheelbarrow, she trots along behind, pausing to sniff the dewy grass at random.

One morning, on my daily pilgrimage to the pile, I turn to see Muscade trotting happily after me, followed by Zorro. I giggle at the thought of our three-species parade. Empty wheelbarrow in hand, I lead the way back to the barn, and to my surprise, our procession remains intact.

As I sift through the horses stalls for more fodder for the wheelbarrow, Zorro chances a rub against Muscade's front legs. Muscade shoots me a worried, "what am I supposed to do about that?" kind of look, and then Zorro seats himself on the floor beside her, mimicking her erect pose. Muscade backs away and takes up a new seat a few feet further back.

She's right to be leery. She and Ruffles have shared a house for nearly five years now. They have an uneasy truce, which Ruffles violates at will, often rubbing against Muscade, then turning to swat her in the face. Zorro has only been here a few days and his brash move has her confused. She's not ready to trust him just yet.

I make my second trip to the manure pile and am thoroughly amused to see that our convoy continues. Myself and the wheelbarrow, a tail-wagging Muscade, followed by a trotting, mewing, black and white kitty cat.

Later, I tack up Maggie and lead her down to the riding ring. As usual, Muscade follows at a safe distance (Maggie is not particularly keen on K9 companionship), and, behind her comes the ever-curious Zorro. As I mount, Muscade takes up her usual position in a sunny spot on the grass outside the ring. Zorro hops on a nearby fence post for a better view. After awhile, a bored Muscade gets up, stretches her legs, and lowers her nose to explore the tall grass along the back edge of the ring. Zorro leaps from his fence-post position and disappears into the tall grass too.

Over the next few days, Zorro's attachment to Muscade grows. The minute we let her out of the house to pee, he leaps from some nearby shrub where he's been hiding, rubs against her, then follows her. He even sits beside her while she does her business. When she comes back to the house, we look out the window to see her sitting patiently at the front door, with Zorro sitting contentedly beside her. We usually have to shoo him away as we allow Muscade back into the house.

On sunny days when Muscade sprawls on the cool grass, Zorro rolls onto his back just a few feet away. On chilly days when Muscade curls up in the sweet-smelling hay, Zorro tries to tuck himself alongside of her furry belly. Sometimes Muscade allows this, other times she chooses to relocate.

Muscade seems a bit bewildered by this cat's over-friendly gestures. I'm never sure whether she really likes her feline companion, but there was one occasion which makes me think she does care for him at least a little bit.

A few weeks after Zorro arrived, some very good friends came to visit. They brought their adorable terrier mix "Chester" for a play date. In his excitement to meet everyone, Chester (on leash) made an excited dash in Zorro's direction. Muscade promptly interjected and inserted herself between the two of them. I like to think she was protecting her little brother (not that there was any need as Chester turned out to be a perfect gentleman).

It's not just that Zorro follows the dog. He is, in fact, very dog-like: He comes when called, he's the first one to greet you when you pull into the driveway, he adores attention, and he follows people everywhere. He's turned out to be quite an entertaining character. Unfortunately, the only family member he can't seem to get along with is the other barn-cat-- Lilly.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Legend of Zorro-- Chapter 2 The First Night

I felt the need to get a barn cat because the strays which had been hanging around the property seemed to abandon us over the summer. But at least one of them reappeared the night we got Zorro.

August 24th, 7pm
I debate about what to do with Zorro that first night. I don't want to give him free rein on the property just yet (I worry he might take off and never be seen or heard from again), but I don't want to keep him locked in the cage (how would he "do his business")? I consider bringing him into the mudroom at the house, but that might leave him with the impression that the house is his home (which it is not). In the end, I take my chances by letting him loose in the tackroom.

The problem with the tackroom is that it's really just a stall. A stall with walls that reach only partway to the ceiling. It wouldn't take much exploring for a savvy, curious cat to figure out how to get out. And once in the main barn, there are cat-doors and open stall doors that lead to freedom. I take the risk though, and loose much sleep because of it.

I turn Zorro loose on the world at about 7pm. By 8pm, he is nowhere to be seen. I search the barn while shaking a small bag of cat treats and calling his name. Nothing. I wander the property, still shake, shake, shaking the treats-- again, nothing. Tears well up in my eyes. I promised a little girl I'd take good care of her cat, and after just a few hours I've already lost him.

A few minutes pass and I check the barn again. The horses are out, so the barn is still and quiet. Then, I hear it. It's a kind of faint shuffling coming from the hayloft. Moments later, a meowing, dust and cobweb covered, black and white face peeks down from the tiny ventilation space between the barn ceiling and the walls of the hayloft. Jubilation!

He meows and squirms and stretches a paw down toward me. But he can't seem to figure out how to get down. Dave gets a ladder I stand on the highest rung, reaching with one arm to pull the cat toward safety. Zorro is of two minds. He seems to want down, but everytime I get my hands around him, he digs his claws into the wood, anchoring himself in place.

Finally I send Dave up the ladder instead (he's taller). Eventually, with me holding the ladder, he pries Zorro's claws from the rafters and a squirming, frightened cat tumbles down into my arms.

I hug him and feed him and pat him as he purrs and rubs against my legs. Reassured, (and fed), his curiosity takes over, and before we can blink he jumps onto the 4 foot high door and out into the barn.

He's skittish and nervous, but intent on exploring every corner. We leave him for the night. Or so we think.

With our heads barely nestled into our pillows, we're suddenly jolted upright by the banshee-like, high-pitch screams of fighting cats. My first thought is that Tomlin (the tough, scrapy, ugly, street-smart Tom cat) is back and is showing my poor, inexperienced, urban indoor cat what it takes to live life in the sticks. I run outside toward the barn and yell, but I don't see any cats. I check the barn and shake the treat bag again. I walk the dark path toward the riding ring calling his name. But Zorro has disappeared and hasn't carved any Z's in the walls or on the ground to help me find him.

I go back to bed, but I don't sleep. I worry that he's lying somewhere outside, alone, frightened, and bleeding. I toss and turn and worry for hours, thinking that I should have brought him to the house. At 3:30 in the morning, Dave and I jerk upright in bed again. It's that same, spine-chilling, snarling, cat-fighting sound. I throw on a sweater and my crocs and tear outside to the barn. I get there just in time to see Lilly dash out of the tackroom (where I had left full dishes of cat-food for Zorro).

Lilly? I have seen Tomlin around from time to time, but I haven't seen Lilly in over a month. I assumed that she had taken up residents at one of the farms down the road-- which is probably where she came from to begin with. Now I wonder whether she's been here all along, to shy to show herself when we're around. Right now though, I don't care. She has clearly frightened my poor Zorro (who's cowering in the rafters with a small scratch on his nose), and I'm not in a forgiving mood. I chase her outside.

I climb up on the ladder again, but I can't reach Zorro. At least I know he's here and he's alive. In the morning I'll work on getting him down.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Legend of Zorro-- Chapter 1

After my encounter with the bold, and clearly deranged squirrel playing house in my barn, I began the search for a barn cat-- actually, I began the search for two barn cats. What I ended up with was a live-in stray and a foxy, masked-avenger who defends our property (and his food dish) with great gusto.

Sometime in August 2010

Finding a kitten would be easy. There are so many cute, cuddly, barely-weaned fluff-balls up for adoption on Kijiji that it's no wonder some people end up hoarding dozens of them. I, however, am on a mission, and I won't be deterred by cuteness. The cats I'm looking for just have to be proven mousers with an affinity for the outdoors. If they're scrappy looking and un-cute, then all the better.

As I scroll through the pages, I see several adult cats up for adoption (mostly due to "changes of circumstances" beyond their owners' control), but most are Garfield-like indoor cats, many of whom don't even have claws-- definitely not what I'm looking for.

I decide to place my own ad: BARN CATS WANTED Looking for two outdoor, adult cats-- proven mousers who are preferably spayed or neutered.

The next afternoon, there's a message on my cell phone from someone saying they have the perfect cat for me. I'm busy at work though and I don't get a chance to call back right away. A few hours later, as I'm driving home, my phone rings again. It's another response to my ad. It's a man named David (and no, it's not my husband). He says his family has the perfect cat for me-- and he has been neutered.

He's supposed to be an indoor, family cat, but is adept at slinking out through open doors or windows. While out, his murderous instincts take hold and he savagely attacks both feathered friends and furry fiends. He presents his bloodied prey as trophies at the front door. This has created tension among the bird-loving neighbours and the family is getting tired of trying to defend their cat's honour.

Me: "Out of curiosity, what colour is he?"

David: "He's black with white paws, and a white nose and belly."

That's all I need to hear. I'm in love. I grew up with a kind, gentle, easy-going black and white cat. Whiskers was my faithful companion through 16 years of childhood triumphs, teenage angst, and adult beginnings, and I miss him to this day. I've had a soft spot for "tuxedo" cats ever since, and came very close to adopting one named "Socks" from the SPCA in Moncton a couple of years ago.

David (somewhat apologetically): "His name is Zorro"

I try unsuccessfully to stifle a giggle, and then I make arrangements to meet David, his family, and their cat the next afternoon after work.

I try not to get my hopes up, but I have a good feeling, so I search through some as-yet unpacked boxes and dig out the oversize cat carrier and toss it into the trunk.

It turns out the family lives in a busy, family-oriented subdivision in Eastern Passage. When I arrive, Zorro doesn't waste anytime in trying to bolt out the front door. We manage to thwart his attempts though, and I am instantly, completely in love.

I sit and chat with the lovely family for a good half hour. Within minutes, Zorro leaps onto my lap and curls up. He purrs contentedly as I stroke his shiny black coat. The parents and the two daughters are extolling Zorro's many virtues-- they seem worried that I might not like him. Little do they know that I'm sitting here worried they won't like me enough to let me take him home.

The youngest daughter (Sophie) declares that Zorro's favourite colour is pink. She promptly produces a pink headband/wig combo and puts it on Zorro. He squirms and wriggles, but is otherwise resigned to what I expect is a common ritual. Sophie pats and plays with Zorro and it's clear that she's probably the person who will miss him the most. I feel bad. I try to reassure her that I'll offer him a great home-- and that they're all welcome to visit anytime.

After a bit more chatting, they ask if I've brought a cat carrier. Feeling relieved and excited, I bring it inside from the car. I put it on the floor so Zorro has a few minutes to get used to it before I have to coax him inside. The small metal door is barely open before he shoves his way inside the big green box, sniffing at all the unfamiliar smells. As I ask for the dates of his last vaccinations, and what kind of food he likes, Zorro curls up and falls asleep in the carrier. Sophie gently slides his pink wig/headband into the carrier and tells me I can keep it so he'll feel at home.

Then, just as I'm heading out the door with him, she rushes to the basement and reappears momentarily with a square fleece blanket with a cat paw print. "This is Zorro's", she says, and so I thank her and add it to my new cat's meagre possessions. After that, I'm speechless.

For the drive home, I position the carrier in the middle of the backseat, facing the dash. I have a bag of cat treats handy, and I can easily reach my hand back to appease him if he seems unhappy-- which he does. The 45 minute drive home is filled with regular yeowls of discontent. He's not interested in the treats, but the guttural sounds ease when I shove my fingers into the cage for him to rub against.

Finally we're home and as soon as the car stops moving, Zorro becomes quiet again. I open the car door and point the cage outside so he has a chance to look around before being released into his new habitat. The dog, always happy to see me, rushes to the car, tail wagging, and barking like crazy. Zorro's not impressed. He hisses a bit, and Muscade glances in his direction, but otherwise ignores him.

I leave Zorro like that for half an hour or so, then I move the carrier into the cool, quiet tack room in the barn. I place some food and water inside, but leave him in the cage for another hour or so.

That evening, I let him out of the cage. His first night proves to be a sleepless one for both of us.

To be continued...

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Are you Kidding Me? (part II)

October 15th, 7:15 am
I cradle my travel mug full of tea and sleepily plop myself down onto the passenger seat of the car. Dave, nursing his mug full of coffee, gets behind the wheel and points us toward Halifax.

This is my day off, but because of last night's encounter with the police, Dave is driving me into the city so I can go get my license renewed. I seriously considered throwing caution to the wind and driving myself there in the truck. But I was sternly warned against that last night, and with my luck, the officers are huddled in hiding somewhere along the hour-long route, just waiting to catch me behind the wheel.

We arrive at the Access Nova Scotia centre in the Bayers Lake Industrial park. Of course we can't access the centre yet because it doesn't open for another 15 minutes. Already though, there are at least four other cars idling in the lot, presumably occupied by people needing to renew their license, or registration or some similar bit of paperwork.

After a few minutes, another car pulls up and an older woman and a teenage boy get out. They walk to the front of the building and grab the door handles. The locked doors, of course, don't budge. It's very windy and very cold, but instead of getting back in their car, they stand there and wait.

A few more minutes go by, and someone else gets out of their car to join the line-up. I figure I'd better do the same, besides, Dave (whose coffee mug is now empty) is itching to enter the Tim Horton's line up down the street. I put on my gloves, turn up my collar and join the folks at the door.

I'm cold, but the older woman must be freezing. She has no coat and is wearing only a green, cable-knit hoodie and a pair of black capri pants. She hugs herself tightly to stay warm. The sandy haired, chunky teenage boy with her is wearing black shorts and a hoodie, but seems oblivious to the cold. In his hand, he tightly clutches a folded sheet of paper

We do as Canadians do and talk with each other about the weather. The older woman looks at her watch and wonders aloud why they haven't opened the doors yet. I look at my cell phone and tell her it's only 8:26am. "Grandma, your watch is always fast", says the boy in a joking, but respectful tone.

Finally, at 8:30 (plus thirty seconds), a grey-haired man emerges from the brick building and unlocks the doors. The shivering woman looks at me: "They don't open a single second early do they?". No, indeed they don't. As the glass doors swing open, I can hear car doors slamming behind me from the now fairly-full parking lot.

As we enter the sterile, brightly-lit environment, The "Grandma" and her grandson are directed to the left. I'm given a piece of paper with a number on it and told to go to the right. My number immediately appears on an overhead screen and I'm instructed to go straight to the counter.

The woman behind the counter is probably in her early fifties. She wears a patient, but not entirely genuine smile. I tell her I'm there to renew my license, and without really looking at me, she starts the paperwork. I mention that I didn't even realize it had expired. She gives me the "tsk tsk" look and in school-marm, scolding style, says: "We mail out several reminders you know".

"I didn't get any".

She looks at me over her glasses as though assessing whether I'm telling the truth.

"I would definitely remember if I got a reminder".

She mumbles something about "maybe with the change of address and all that..."

I don't say anything else, but I know I didn't get any reminders in the mail. I love getting mail. When I see that little red flag go up on my mailbox, I grab the dog, and skip with her to the end of the driveway to see what the nice Canada Post lady in the burgundy SUV has left behind. I would know if I'd received reminders. But there's no point arguing about it now.

I fill out the paperwork and pay the $70 dollar fee (again). I'm pointed toward another counter to have my picture taken. After a bright flash, I'm told to take a seat while the photo is plastered to a plastic card. A few minutes later, I walk to the doors with my new, still-warm license in hand. Now I have to swing by the RCMP detachment to prove that I have indeed renewed my license-- if not, I was warned that I'll receive the full $300 dollar fine plus another "non-compliance" fine. Overkill?

In any case, I poke my head out of the building but see no sign of Dave, so I wait (it turns out he popped into the hardware store for a few minutes-- as well as Tim's). Also standing in the doorway, looking outside, is the "Grandma".

Within a few seconds, her grandson pulls the door open from outside, a look of distress on his face.

"The card, the insurance card, he says it expired September 1st."

Grandma: "Yes, but we renewed it. The new card should be there."

Close on the boy's heels is a middle aged man with a clipboard in hand. He confirms what the boy said, and it becomes clear that he's a driving tester.

The grandmother sends the boy back out to search the vehicle for the newer card. Then, she calls her husband. I'm standing less than six feet away, I can't help but overhear the conversation. She asks where the new card would be. I gather he tells her it's in the glove box. I also gather that he has a couple of copies of it at home too.

She gets off the phone and looks at the driving instructor.

The man tells her he can't take the boy for his driving test unless they have valid insurance.

Grandmother: "We do. Why don't we call the insurance company to confirm. I have the phone number".

Tester: "No, the card has to be in the car."

Grandmother: "My husband can bring it. It won't take long."

Tester: "No, it would be too late by the time he got here. You'll have to reschedule the test."

Grandmother: "But his beginner's license expires next week. We need to do the test right away."

Tester: "You'll have to tell them that when you call to book a new appointment. Maybe they'll shuffle a few people around and get you in right away. They do that sometimes."

Grandmother (looking dubious): "But it took us months to book this appointment. Can't we bring the insurance card and then wait around to see if someone cancels or if you're running ahead of schedule and might be able to make some time for him?"

Tester: "No. I schedule one person each half hour and I'm booked solid."

At this point, the boy re-enters the building. His hanging head makes it obvious that he didn't find the up-to-date card.

Grandmother: "So there's no way we can do the test today?"

Tester: "No, I'm sorry. Call and reschedule. Tell them his temporary permit's about to expire. Hopefully they'll shuffle things around for him. Here's your receipt and your form."

He walks away.

Boy: "Every time, something goes wrong."
Red-faced, he shoves the door open and, close to tears, walks out into the cool wind.

His grandmother, embarrassed and sad, follows behind with her head down. "I'm so sorry. It's our fault."

I feel so bad for them that if I didn't have to drop Dave off at work, I'd give the boy the keys to my car and tell him to do the test in it.

Honestly, is there really any reason to be this inflexible? I'm sure the tester is very, very busy. I'm sure appointments fill every minute of his day, but couldn't he have tried to give the insurance company a quick call? Couldn't their verbal confirmation have served the purpose? Perhaps they could have faxed the card? Where oh where has all the common sense and compassion gone?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Are You Kidding Me?

October 14
7:15pm I close up the tack shop in Truro for the night. It's pretty much dark by now and I'm not looking forward to the 45 minute drive home, especially since I'm starving. To make it through the drive, I picture an evening that ends with a hot meal and a chance to curl up and unwind in front of the TV.

I cruise down the highway and approach my usual exit. It takes me home via a lonely, shoulderless back road which at night is dark and isolated. I start to veer toward the exit ramp, then think better of it and decide I'll take the slightly longer, less-deer-inhabited "mainstream" route.

I'm on the main drag in the area, route 14. Five more minutes and I'll be home spooning hot turkey soup into my starving soul. Ahead of me, I spot the unmistakable red and blue glow of police car lights-- in this case RCMP. They seem to be doing a spot check. I pull up behind several other cars and haul out my insurance card and driver's license while waiting to be waved forward. I'm not worried. I have nothing to hide.

After a few minutes, it's my turn. A young, female RCMP officer shines a flashlight in the car and asks for my license. I smile and hand it over. She looks at the license, then back at me.

"You're license is expired".

"What? It can't be. I just renewed it in June, after we moved here."

She tilts the laminated plastic card in my direction and shines the light so I can see EXPIRY DATE: 09/18/2010.

"I'll call in and double check though", she offers.

As she moves behind the car and speaks into the radio-like device attached to her shirt collar, a vague memory floats into my head:

I'm in a room full of chairs and frustrated people. I've been waiting here for an hour and a half. Finally, my number is called. At the counter, a woman takes my information and my old New Brunswick license. She charges me a horrendous fee, mumbles something about reciprocity with NB, and says I'll still have to renew my license in September. "What?" "That's when it was up for renewal in NB." But I just paid to have it renewed. "It doesn't matter".

The light once again shines in through my open window. I already know what the young officer is going to say.

"I called it in. Your license is expired".

I mumble something akin to ...."Stupid Service Nova Scotia...."

"I can't let you drive away from here. You'd be committing an offense."

My head snaps up.


"You'll have to find another way home."

It takes a moment for the implications of this to sink in. I'm not in downtown Halifax. I'm in the middle of rural Nova Scotia, on a dark, unlit road on a cold night. I can't exactly just hop on a transit bus or call a cab.

"I guess I can ask my husband to pick me up."

"And tell him to bring someone to pick up the car as well".

I stare blankly, and I start thinking.

"I don't have anyone else to call."

"Call your neighbours".

"I don't have any neighbours."

"You must have neighbours".

"Not exactly."

I stare ahead, running through names in my head.

"Call some friends."

"We don't know anyone in the area." (at least no one who would be willing in picking up either me, or my car and driving the 5 minutes to my house).

I stare ahead some more.

"Do you have a phone?"


"Ok, call and make arrangements then. And you'll have to get to Halifax AS SOON AS POSSIBLE to renew your license.

"I can go tomorrow".

"You can't drive there".


She turns and walks away.

I call Dave. He got home about 20 minutes earlier. There was no roadblock when he drove by. He sighs, grabs the dog, gets in the truck, and comes to pick me up off the side of the road.

When I get off the phone, the officer is back at my window.

"This should be a $300 dollar fine, but I'm writing you a warning". (I believe I'm supposed to be grateful-- which I mostly am)

"Ok. Thank you"

"Someone's coming to get you...and the car?"

"My husband's coming to get me."

"You'll have to park somewhere legal until you can send someone to get your car."

"Yeah, where do you want me to park?"

She looks around. It's a very dark area, on a sharp turn on a fairly narrow highway, on the corner of an even darker secondary road.

"You can't park on the curve in the road. And you don't want to park on the Blois rd. It's a shady area and trucks fly down the road there."

I look at her. I look around. The only place for me to park is on the wide shoulder pretty much where I am now.

"So....where should I go?"

"Ok, well, just pull up a bit and make sure you're over as far as you can get. You can't leave your car here indefinitely though. Someone will have to come get it."

"I don't know anyone who can get it."

"Well, I can't drive it for you. Think of it this way, I could have given you a $300 dollar fine and I didn't, so you can afford the 50 dollars to call a tow truck."

Fifty dollars for a tow truck in the middle of nowhere at 8pm? Right. But, I do have CAA, so, being a good, law-abiding citizen, I call them, and have it towed to the house.

By the time we, and the car, finally make it home, it's about 9:30pm. I forgo the hot soup and settle for a piece of Nutella-smeared toast and a fried egg for supper.

I understand that there are rules. I understand that the rules are there for a reason, but can't there be some discretion? I have a clean driving record: no DUI's, no suspensions, no loss of points, no speeding tickets. My license expired less than a month earlier. I live just minutes from where I was stopped.

On top of all that, I'd presented my license to the RCMP earlier that day (the same detachment where this officer is based). I was there to have a criminal background check done as a condition of my coaching certification. As part of the check, the woman behind the glass asked me for two forms of ID, including a valid driver's license. She took my license, left the room with it, presumably copied it or took down the information on it, then gave it back to me a few minutes later. She didn't say anything about it being expired, and I didn't think to look.

If I had been issued a ticket, I would have fought it in court.

It just all seems so silly. But, I encountered a similar lack of flexibility for the rules when I went to renew my license the next morning. (see Are You Kidding Me II-- soon to follow).

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A Squirrely Situation

When we moved here, I found it odd that there was not a squirrel to be seen. Lots of trees, lots of open space, I would have thought that would have meant lots of squirrels. But no, not a single squirrel sighting-- at least not until one sunny day in August.

The first time I see the small red squirrel, he (she?) darts into the dilapidated sheep barn through a hole in the back wall. The second time I come across it, I don't actually see it. I hear it chattering away in one of the evergreen trees that line our driveway. Muscade hears it chattering too. She looks longingly at the branch where the squirrel sits, but he/she won't climb down to play.

The third time I see the squirrel, it's scaling the cinder-block wall in one of the spare stalls in the barn-- not good. I've heard all about the damage squirrels can do indoors, including chewing through plastic feedbins, and through electrical wiring. So, I decide the squirrel must go.

Now, before I continue, I should point out that I had one previous encounter with a Nova Scotia red squirrel, and it didn't end well.

It was about seven years ago. Dave and I were walking in Halifax's Point Pleasant Park on a crisp spring morning. We passed by a red squirrel sitting on its hind legs, chattering incessantly on the side of the trail. I decided to take a picture.

I slowly knelt down a few feet away from the squirrel, and quietly raised my camera to my eye. I looked through the viewfinder and saw only an empty patch of snow. The squirrel had disappeared. I shrugged, and stood up. That's when I felt a slight tug at the bottom of my left pant leg. I looked down to see the would-be object of my photo nibbling at the bottom of my jeans.

Taken by surprise, I did what anyone would do, I started hopping up and down on my right leg and violently shaking my left leg. Within seconds I sent the squirrel cartwheeling through the air. The moment his little paws hit the slushy, muddy snow again, he made it clear that he was offended by my uncivilized actions.

He started chattering again-- loudly, angrily. He was probably hurling a litany of squirrel obscenities my way. Then, I'm sure he shook his furry fist at me. After that, he charged. Yes, that tiny red squirrel, smaller even than most Hollywood celebrities purse-dogs, started running straight toward me-- a hundred+ pound human. And what did that human do? I turned and ran away.

Now, bear in mind that I wasn't alone. Dave was with me at the time. Did he rush to my aid? Did he try to fend off the furry fiend? No, while I engaged in battle with the swarthy squirrel, he slowly backed away. And when I started running down the path toward him, he started running too. When I caught up with him, he put his arm out and shoved me behind him. So much for a knight in shining armour.

As we take off, the squirrel is hot on our heels, chattering madly all the while. After a couple hundred metres or so, our out-of-shape lungs burn and legs turn to jello. We're beat, but we're lucky because it seems we've made our way outside the borders of this particular squirrel's territory. We glance over our shoulders to see that the squirrel has stopped in the middle of the trail, tail puffed to its fullest extent. He continues his angry tirade, but ends his pursuit. We sheepishly continue our walk, and I ask Dave for an explanation as to why, in the face of grave danger, he shoved me back toward our pursuer.

So, when I see the squirrel scaling the cinder-block wall in the spare stall, my heart rate spikes. I know his kind, and I don't trust this little bugger; however, luckily the stall does have a door which opens directly outside onto one of the small paddocks. Surely, if I open this door, the squirrel will happily let itself out. Right?

I step out of the stall and walk around the outside of the barn. With a bit of effort, I slide the warped bolt across, and yank open the stall door. Then, I go back inside and stand at the doorway leading into the barn. The squirrel doesn't make any kind of move toward the wide-open, inviting door. I decide to offer a bit of encouragement.

I grab a broom and wave it toward him. He doesn't even flinch. I suppose I should step a bit closer. I do. This time, when I wave the broom, he scurries down the wall and hides behind a bag of shavings. I wait.

A minute or so goes by, and still the squirrel isn't enticed by the sunshine streaming through the recently opened door. I decide to prod him along just a bit more. I lift the broom in the air, and then heave it down on top of the bag of shavings behind which the squirrel is squatting. The impact sends out a loud thud. The squirrel darts out of his hiding spot. But instead of scrambling for the open door, the crazed animal makes a frenzied dash straight toward me.

The next thing I know, he leaps from the floor to my leg, landing at about knee height. I shriek. Before I have time to shake him off, he's already at hip level. I drop the broom, and am about to start dancing around like some ancient tribal warrior. But the squirrel (perhaps a distant relative of the Point Pleasant Park clan), leaps from my leg of his own accord. He lands on the wall next to me, and climbs straight up, through the rafters and into the hayloft. He never even considers the open outside door. Clearly, he already knows his way around.

When my heart rate settles, I pick up the phone and call Dave: "We're getting a barn cat. Not a kitten, but a full-grown, lean, mean hunting machine."

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Squash Surprise

The early morning sun is already warm and bright. I yawn, and try to blink myself awake as I push an overflowing wheelbarrow out to the ever-growing manure pile.
In an effort to speed up the composting process, half the pile is covered by a green tarp anchored by moldy bales of straw. The other half of the pile is taller, open to the elements, and ready to receive my wheelbarrow's offerings.

Wearing my bright pink rainboots and some faded navy shorts, I clumsily run the last few steps toward the pile in hopes of propelling the wheelbarrow to the top. From my unsteady perch, I lift the handles and tip the barrow's contents until they spill down the side of the mini-manure-mountain.

Zombie-like, I turn to head back to the barn to re-fill the wheelbarrow. But as I do, I catch a glimpse of a giant leaf out of the corner of my eye. I turn and look over my shoulder. I'm still groggy, but I recognize that leaf. Only, it's the largest leaf of its kind that I've ever seen. I put down the wheelbarrow and tentatively step over warm manure to reach the back, left-hand corner of the pile. Sure enough, that leaf is attached to a long, long vine, and there are many more similar, lush-looking leaves attached--- many of them 12-14 inches across.

It's a squash plant. A squash-plant that's growing and thriving in my manure pile, which also happens to be where we dump our non-dairy, non-meat kitchen compost. At some point, some squash seeds must have made their way into the pile, and taken root. I'm guessing it's buttercup squash, because that's what I usually buy, but at this point I can't say for sure.

As I look-over the plant, I'm baffled that this is the first time I've noticed it. Afterall, its vines are already more than 12 feet long, and orange flowers are beginning to blossom. It seems early for squash blossoms, but what do I know, my previous attempts to grow squash have yielded mouldy leaves and one or two golf-ball size pieces of fruit.

When I get over my surprise at seeing this very successful, completely accidental plant, I trek to the other side of the property to check on the squash I lovingly planted and nurtured this spring. The vines are only a couple of feet long, and the leaves are yellowish, and only as wide as the palm of my hand. Typical.

I check the manure-pile squash plant everyday. It just keeps getting bigger and bigger. In one direction its vines stretch their clutching tentacles deep into the empty pasture, gripping at tall stalks of lush grass, forcing them to bow down in front of it. In the opposite direction, one vine bravely sets out runners into the mowed path I use to cool out the horses.

The orange flowers have turned into green, fleshy bulbs (which look like baby buttercup squash). The fruit is growing so quickly that I'm convinced I can see it pulsing as each squash expands right in front of my eyes.

There are several large squash on the plant. Some of them are larger than dinner plates, probably 9 or 10 inches across. They look like buttercup squash, only they're flatter-- perhaps they're Kabocha squash? In any case, I know it's early, but they're huge, so I decide it's time to start the harvest. I tear Dave away from his work in the barn, and drag both him and a sharp knife out to the manure pile. He ceremoniously cuts the first squash from the vine.

A few days later, I saw through the thick, dark-green flesh and into the pale orange pulp. I remove the skin and guts and boil great hunks of squash the way my mom always used to-- with a few spoonfuls of brown sugar mixed in. I'm mildly disappointed. It's not the dark, dry squash that's my favourite. No, the flavour is mild and the texture is softer and a bit stringy. Not bad though....definitely good enough to share, and I do, giving several squash away to good friends. Within a few days, I roast the other ready-to-harvest squashes, and freeze them for use in mid-winter soups.

Throughout August and September, I harvest twelve squash from my accidental plant. The vines take a beating during hurricane Earl in early September. The wind tears the leaves and leaves the vines in the centre of the plant yellowed and shrivelled. I noticed two small squash, not much bigger than golf balls, still on the vine. I don't expect them to mature, but I leave them just in case.

I empty another wheelbarrow onto the manure pile. I look over at the squash plant and notice that parts of it seem to have recoverred from the hurricane damage. Sure, some of the leaves on the older part of plant are shrivelled and brown, but the younger runners are a vibrant green again. I lean closer to see whether the two small squash made any progress. They did. They're two healthy-looking, average sized squash now. I look to see if there are any others, but much of the plant is shrouded by chest-high, greenish-brown pasture grass.

It's a misty, humid, grey day, but I've got a few minutes to spare, so I allow myself to indulge my curiosity. I don't expect to find much on the plant, but I follow the vines, pushing aside the grass as I go. I can't believe what I see. I count 12 more squash, all big enough to eat, and several more smaller ones. The largest squash are the biggest yet; they look like slightly flattened basketballs (actually, they look a bit like UFO's).

I once again bring the wheelbarrow to the pile, only this time I wheel it here empty, and bring it back filled with squash. I try to weigh the largest squash, but my kitchen scale can only handle six and a half pounds, and this one definitely weighs more than that. I'm thinking maybe eight or ten pounds. I'll never have to buy squash again.

For comparisons' sake, and because there's a chance of frost tonight, I head out to my "purposely" planted garden. I don't bother with the wheelbarrow, but I do bring a bucket. There are five or six squash plants growing (or perhaps more acurately "dying") in mounds at the back of the garden. Some even have fruit. I twist the baseball sized buttercup squash from the vines and bring them inside, but they're awful sorry-looking beside my earlier harvest. I guess next year I'll have to accidentally drop some more squash seeds into the manure pile if I want a fruit worth eating.