The signs and sounds of another Illinois spring are everywhere and each one sends me daydreaming to another time, another place.
The distressed chatter of a red squirrel calls me out of the office to see what the fuss is all about. Just as I reach the edge of the small woods alongside the house, I spot the cause: a red fox is ogling a treed meal, fattened on birdseed all winter, it never will have.
I’ve seen more red fox in the last year than in 20 years on the big dairy farm of my youth.
A sly one. Once, decades ago, while bringing the cows from the pasture for the evening milking, a red fox crossed 50 or so yards in front the herd. I saw it long after it spotted me, but the fox seemed to know that my short legs posed no threat so it just kept coming.
Instinctively, however, the cows lowered their big heads and gave chase.
The fox, a shaggy, rust-colored collection of winter-starved bones, knew it could outrun the cattle any moment it chose so it regally, defiantly trotted across the pasture without one glance at the black-and-white mass closing behind it.
Then, just as the cattle reached their target, the fox took two smooth, unhurried leaps to, then through, the pasture’s fence into an adjacent field.
Once there, it, again, absolutely knowingly, stopped and turned to eye the huffing Holsteins halted just yards away by five strands of taut barbed wire.
Before or since, I’ve never seen a wild animal so confidently cool and so coolly confident than that fox.
Birds are back. Wild birds, also, have migrated back into my daily life now that 30 years of traveling concrete roads and living in lovingly manicured towns have been traded for a woody acre-and-a-half in the country.
Three bird feeders bring dozens, and some days, hundreds, of birds within 10 feet of my glass office doors, and me, every day.
On the farm, we watched birds on a more seasonal basis: duck season, dove season, goose season, quail season. My father often told us that his father, a cuff-link-and-striped-tie stockbroker in St. Louis, was the best quail shot in the county.
Once, Dad loves to relate, when he was just a pup and serving as Grandpa’s birddog, Grandpa was astraddle a wooden pasture gate when a tight covey exploded from nearby cover.
Sure shot. Cool as the other side of the pillow, Grandpa calmly shouldered his side-by-side .16 gauge to drop several plump quail with his perfectly aimed, perfectly timed split-second shots.
“In all my years of hunting,” Dad will say if you can tease him into reliving the moment, “I’ve never seen a better shot.”
I don’t need to tease; the sharp bob-bob-white whistle of nearby quail reminds me of the story and my father’s smile that always ends its retelling.
A quick patrol of my fast-greening little homestead reveals one of my two small pink dogwoods succumbed to a harsh February. The other, bought at an auction last spring for $8, however, has – count ’em – 23 promising little buds atop its tiny crown of twigs.
Twenty-three should make Easter in my backyard as showy as Easter at the Masters, eh? Despite their hatred of replanting and painfully slow growing, dogwoods are my most beloved tree.
Easter story. That, too, goes back to that southern Illinois farm where, one Easter Sunday, my great Uncle Honey stopped by a dogwood tree to show me the red stain bleeding down the center of each flower’s four petals.
“See the cross they form?” Honey asked. “That’s why they bloom each Easter; to remind us of the cross of Jesus.”
(Alan Guebert’s Farm and Food File is published weekly in more than 75 newspapers in North America. He can be contacted at email@example.com.)
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