Out, Out Damn Scot!

As quickly as it came, so it leaves us.

We are now past the week between, so yesterday was time for the temporary arboreal winter guest to move on. Unlike a human guest he didn’t start to smell after three days. Quite the contrary, he’d started to lose his fragrant appeal.

And needles. Boy was he losing needles.

Our tree this year was a somewhat unusual affair, as these things go. Though lovely when seen in a dark room all lit up, by light of day things were less ideal. It was the fullest, loveliest tree of its kind remaining at the Christmas tree forest area of the Peru big box hardware store, to be sure. Still, it’s trunk had grown with an odd, atypical bend to it that started at the base and continued up through to its spire.

Here it is, unlit and undecorated, in the morning following an apparent overnight, feline-based adventure:

Cat victim

For context, that "blanket" piled in the corner on the left side of the picture is the tree skirt, which had been around the base of the tree. One can only imagine the amount of effort the cat spent running in place needed in order to jettison it that far away from the bottom of the tree. It probably took only a few seconds, but I’m sure it seemed a lifetime from the cat’s perspective.

But that’s not really what I wanted to show you. If you look at that picture you get a nice sense of the beginning of arc of the trunk. I’ve illustrated it further below:

Illustrated trunk

This meant that, once it was up and we began to decorate it, MLW took to referring to it as our "drunk" tree. Indeed, like many drunk uncles before it, I did have to go in and offer additional support to get it to remain in some semblance of an upright position (this is why you see the dumbbells there - they aren’t remnants of a workout session).

But its problems persisted, albeit in different form, once it was up and standing. Though we cut a section off of the bottom and watered it regularly, it always seemed a bit dried out. Reaching in to the tree to put on lights or hang up an ornament would result in raised welts on the unprotected forearm. And many of the branches seemed to give way to the weight of even the lightest of ornaments, drooping and dropping at a rate heretofore unseen. It was almost as if this bent little tree had decided to do its own anti-Christmas tree protest, engaging in its own form of civil disobedience. Thoreau would have been proud.

Or, you know, maybe it just wasn’t as healthy as it could have been.

At any rate, come time to remove the tree, one quickly realizes that it’s bigger going out than it was coming in. I think I (sadly) go through this revelation every year as I reach the first doorway and am briefly perplexed at how it is now bigger than the passage. And again this year I have to have MLW remind me that it was netted down when I brought it in. (I would like to think I’m not a dumb person, but then things like this happen...). But the tree has to go out and, while I’ve considered buying one of those contraptions for wrapping the tree at the end of the season, it seems a bit of an extreme purchase for something one would use once a year. Besides, the branches bend towards the top, so as long as you take it out trunk first, the difficulty is minimal.

Right?

But this year our disobedient tree protested more than most, and left us gifts. Lots and lots of gifts:

Needles. Lots and lots of needles.

This didn’t stop me. No - that recalcitrant fir (it was a scotch pine - and you know how Scots are)) is now out on the burn pile. But it does leave one wondering for just a moment whether there could be some alternative purpose to which one could put all of those needles. Is there some sort of artisan craftwork, some sort of Etsy store offering that incorporates pine needles? They sell pillows full of barley hulls now, maybe I could offer up pine needle pillows. Granted, they’d be profoundly uncomfortable, but they would be hand-crafted...

Cat and Mouse

So there I was, yesterday morning, having a private moment in the bathroom. Then I heard a sliding and a clacking of sharp little claws, and a quiet "thud" on the door.

A second later the mouse ran out from under the door.

Under these circumstances one has to make a decision. I was in a compromising position, of course, but the earliness of the hour virtually ensured that I was likely to be unobserved. And I had to think and act quickly. So I did what I think most would under the circumstances:

I opened the door.

The cat came skittering in through the doorway and immediately located the mouse, who (of course) immediately ran behind the decorative storage lockers we have in the bathroom.


This is a scene, the type of which plays itself over and over again across time in our old house. The building is, functionally, a web of open passageways from the perspective of a rodent looking to come in from the winter cold. What looks to you and I like a solid wall made of wood and plaster or brick looks to mousy eyes like a piece of Swiss cheese. So, as the temperature drops, in they come.

Now, our issues with these tiny furry friends has lessened over the years with the help of commercial pest control. Still, the numbers never seem to drop to an absolute zero. And while this is somewhat to the dismay of the human inhabitants of our home, the feline crew seems to prefer the non-zero situation.

The tense and tenuous relationship between cat and mouse is a story as old as time - they say that the ancient Egyptians worshipped cats in part because they kept the rodents from overwhelming their grain stores and protected them from other pests. That relationship has persisted over time, and settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries have also valued feline companionship for the purposes of vermin maintenance.

Within our own home the rodent control team consists of two players - Malcolm and Inara. Malcolm is a largish gray cat with green eyes who would seem to be a Russian Blue but for two tiny bits of white - one on his chest and the other on his tail. He has a delightful, chirping meow. He’s a beefy, strong cat. You can feel the muscle when you pick him up. A natural athelete, he is able to gain the top of our refrigerator with a leap from ground.

Inara is a tortoiseshell with yellow eyes. She is noticeably smaller and more slight than Malcolm, skittish and shy with most members of the family. She has a squeaking meow that is sometimes hard to detect and never pleasant. She is rarely seen to leap, and instead must climb our tall cat tree with claws and effort.

And so of course, who would you expect to have come skittering in to that bathroom? The Adonis, the cat-equivalent of the football player, the track god?

It was Inara.

As is so frequently the case in my experience with cats over the years, it’s the lady who does all the work. Inara parks herself at key points in the home and sits patiently and listens, waiting for the thing she hears behind the wall to peek a whisker out in the open.

Ideally, once that whisker shows, we as the cat owners (owned?) would like to be able to say that the rodent invader is dispatched quickly and efficiently. Those of you with previous cat experience will know this is absolutely not the case. Rather, from the cat’s perspective the catching of the mouse is just the first step in what is about to become an event of extended rodential torture that would make the writers at the Geneva convention add another passage to the rule book if they were to see it.

Apparently the mouse must be made to feel that it has a chance to escape, over and over again, just to discover that there, once again, is a swiping paw to block the way. Periodically one can hear the plaintive squeaks for help that indicate the trial is not yet complete. And apparently there are moments when it has become clear that the current venue is no longer the correct one - that the dining room isn’t the right place any more, and the mouse must be moved to, say, the living room. And so the cat is seen carrying the mouse in that characteristic heads-up position. At these moments the mouse is still and quiet and you think "it’s all over".

Nope - I don’t know why they remain still in that position - if it were me, I’d like to think that I’d be like John McClane surrounded by thieves in Nakatomi Plaza doing everything I could to get free. But no, they hang, still, perhaps hoping that, if they are just quiet enough, the cat will forget they are there... in the cat’s mouth.

This is clear, of course, because once they get to the living room and drop their rodent captive, he starts to move again.

Although he is clearly not in charge of the mousing situation, Malcolm does attempt to cooperate. It would be wrong to describe them as team players - it’s more like rivals working coincidentally towards the same goal. And now might be the right time to mention that we know he can jump to the top of the refrigerator because we feed him up there. We have to because, if we do not, Inara eats all of this big, beautiful athelete’s food.

So you can imagine how well his attempts to participate work most of the time.

There was an event once, several months ago, where he finally got so frustrated that he reached over, picked up the mouse, and simply ate it. If you are picturing the kid who shoves the entire ice cream cone in his mouth so his older brother cannot take it you are right on track.


Yesterday morning, during our bathroom adventure, I was able to move the locker so that Inara could access her prize and scurry with it back out of the bathroom. I’d like to say that I know what happened next, but I had to leave, and so have only the memory of feline and mouse silhouettes against the light of the front hallway to finish that event for me. Sometimes we find the mice later, deposited in delightful locations, once they have lost their interest to the cats due to the no-longer-breathingness they have attained.

Our ancestors valued their feline companions for the perceived assistance in pest control, and understandably so. I’m not certain that, in our situation they truly make much of a difference. The mouse sightings dropped precipitously once we contracted with pest management services. For a while we had a batch of cats outdoors on duty, but honestly our dogs seem to catch more vermin than the cat crew ever did (and the dogs are merciless on that score). But it’s possible that our ancestors also delighted in the joy cats do seem to take in their assigned duties. Setting aside the ultimate outcome, watching a cat diligently at work with a mouse is a little like watching Norm Abrams put together a chair on New Yankee Workshop... in an era absent television and video games a mousing cat would likely be (and indeed, is) quite entertaining.

Holidays at the Homestead

It won’t be a white Christmas on the prairie this year - not unless little patches like this, the functional equivalent of Old Man Winter’s snow comb-over, count:

Snow patch

This little bit remains due to a combination of drifting and fortunate shading, clinging on despite temperatures that have drifted up near the mid-century mark over the past couple of weeks. It’s made it through the solstice, and though we are a couple of days away from Christmas, a bit of it might remain on the holiday itself, so perhaps technically...

White Christmas or not, however, the decorating for the holiday season proceeds in this old house. This is always a somewhat nostalgic affair for me, given that this home figures as part of the holiday celebration for the majority of my life. When my grandparents lived here we would come over for Christmas Eve, after the service at Immanuel Lutheran Church (which always ended in a candlelit version of Silent Night - as it should be). There we’d have a light dinner which we, as children, wolfed down in anticipation of going into the living room so we could start in on the important part of the evening - the opening of presents.

For the purists out there who are now recoiling in disgust at the opening of presents the night before Christmas, take heart - these were the pre-Christmas presents. This was our gift exchange between family - aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents. We also did Christmas morning, but that was for the gifts from Santa (Sometimes resulting in an uncharacteristic awakening at, say, 4:00 AM...).

Those Christmas Eve celebrations mostly took place in the living room, and we have, in past, decorated in that room. This picture is from Christmas 2012, with the tree in the spot that Grandma Marie usually chose - the Northwest corner of the living room:

Grandma’s Spot

Most years, though, we have gone with the placement in the dining room. This room has a large picture window that, itself, replaced a former bay window (the bay window was, reportedly, a "leaker"). The space lends itself nicely to the tree display, and the window offers a backdrop night and day:

Tree at night

Usually our decorating has been limited to the tree and a few knick-knacks scattered around the house. This year, however, the determination was made that something should be done with the front stairwell. It’s a (the) Central feature of the house, but figuratively and literally. In its unretouched presentation it was meant to make a statement:

Newell post

Stairs Rising

And this year that was dressed with garland and lights:

Stairwell brightly lit

I must admit that I cannot take credit for these things. The how and the why of them is largely and capably determined by MLW, with help from the kids. My role primarily involves lifting and moving and placing of things under her wise direction. And to give credit completely where it is due, MLW both conceived of the garland and placed it on the stairwell. There my role was simply to come home and appreciate.

If there is a challenge to all of this - aside from keeping the cats from taking it all down - it is finding a sufficient number of outlets, correctly placed, to allow for the lighting. The front hallway is a particular puzzle, as outlets in the downstairs portion are as absent as belly buttons on an angel.

Fortunately, There are two outlets in the upstairs hallway, both to the front of the house near the stairwell opening. Getting anything like this light display to work in there is an operation that deserves extra-credit.

In the winter months - especially now, during the darkest time of the year - that stairwell is a dark place much of each day. The kids, who occupy the rooms at the top front of the house and are the primary passengers of the stairwell, are already preparing their arguments for keeping the garland there year round...

Screen Room?

Like a lot of people we have tons of plans for our old house. Some of those plans are on a definite near future timeframe, others in the necessary long term, and some are more aspirational.

One of the things we’ve long discussed is the possibility of putting a screen room on the south side of the house, off of the dining room. This is more more towards the aspirational, longer-term - it would be very nice to have, but it comes behind small niceties like having a second bathroom and updating the 70-year old kitchen...

While it is a reality of life that one can’t always do everything one wants (or at the very least, not now, necessarily), one of the upsides to our old house is the realization, through living in it, that our predecessors had similar thoughts. While the house doesn’t have, and hasn’t ever had, as best I can tell, anything like a screen room, many of the rooms in the come close.

Every room in the house has at least one window, and most have at least two. The front rooms in the house, upstairs and down, each have three. The windows are over five foot tall on the upstairs, and about six foot or so downstairs. While they didn’t have the construction techniques to do a wall or corner of windows ala Frank Lloyd Wright, our ancestors clearly understood the value of having a connection with the out-of-doors.

This leaves a home that is awash with natural light during the day, which makes sense given that it was constructed in the days well prior to electrification. It also means, for the rooms where we’ve had the opportunity to replace the original windows with modern units that include full screens, a cool summer evening or early fall afternoon presents a close equivalent to that screen room.

Living Room screen room?

No - it’s not exactly the same as having open walls on all three sides, but it does get close. On a summer evening you get a delightful cross breeze and (assuming there aren’t too many explosions and gunshots on the televisual entertainment selected) the beautiful night sounds of rural Illinois - crickets and frogs fill the summer night.

It’s a little thing, of course, but it’s a little thing that gives well and reliably, and makes the waiting for those more aspirational items a little easier.

Critter Patrol

When one gets a dog, one anticipates many of the features that accompany such an animal. They offer affection and companionship. They provide warning of new arrivals and intruders (albeit at their discretion). One thing I didn't expect, even with a lifetime of dog experience, was the level of vermin management that our canine team offers - indeed, seems to revel in.

We've detailed some of our issues with the Trash Pandas here, including the roles the dogs have played (and frankly, which we wish they would not play) in rounding them up. But the pest management goes much further than that - our furry exterminators offer more comprehensive services.

It is not at all uncommon for us to find, typically in the grass by the patio and back step, one or more recently dispatched members of the family rodentia, as well as the odd North American marsupial and periodic avian remains. To date, the list of gifts we have been left include:

  • House mice
  • Deer mice
  • Opossums
  • Shrews (I originally had moles on the list, but Wikipedia now has me convinced that what the dogs have caught were actually shrews)
  • Rats
  • Raccoons
  • Various and sundry birds

We have rabbits at the edges of the property - relatively recent additions. Thus far the dogs don't appear to have caught any of them, though it's not for lack of trying. There are no squirrels in our vicinity, but I'm sure they would be a target as well.

For the first few years at the Homestead we had a contingent of outdoor cats, brought in with the explicit intention of pest management. They were a fine batch of felines, as far as it goes, but at this point it's fairly clear that our canine crew is far more effective - perhaps because the cats didn't always see the need to quickly finish their prey off. The dogs are, however, perhaps less discriminating about what they eliminate - the birds are not pests, and possums are not problematic.

All of which brings me to the event that made me think of sitting and writing this post. Almost every morning, when I get up to make my coffee, Calamity comes to the back step to greet me through the window. And when she came to see me this morning this is the view that greeted me:

Calamity Back step

Because of the color of her fur you have to look closely to see it, but sure enough, she has a bird in her mouth.

Calamity the bird hunter

Bird Circled

And one might think: "okay, but she probably found that dead somewhere - a dog can't catch a bird". And that might be true for this particular bird - I can't say. But I can say that I've watched both Rosie and Calamity run into flocks of birds on the ground and scoop up individual birds as they start to take flight. And to be clear, I'm not looking to encourage this - we don't see the birds as pests to manage - but it is both surprising and impressive to see.

When I was very young we had a dog - a male rat terrier named Gladys (thanks Mom) who would routinely bring captured mice to the back step. This sort of thing is common for terriers, as I understand it, but our dogs are not terriers - they are herding dogs.

And they apparently like to herd a variety of critters right off this mortal coil...

Spring Birds

One of the delights of life out on the Homestead is the veritable orgy of birdsong in early Spring. This recording was made yesterday morning, standing in the back yard with an iPhone in the air (you can hear the spring winds in this in addition to the birds).

Joining the array of LBB's and Cardinals that remain year round are the Mourning Doves, Robins, and one of my favorites, the Red Wing Blackbird.

In addition to the delight of the birdsong itself, the sudden preponderance of avian activity whips both the dogs and the cat into a frenzy of activity. Outdoors the herding dogs make great efforts to "guide" the flocks of birds from tree to tree, while indoors Malcolm the cat sprints from window to window (and we have a lot of windows) in an effort to see and, one strongly suspects, in hopes of catching an errant bird that might, somehow, wander in through the glass.