Friday, March 20, 2009

The Uncomely In-between

Happy Vernal Equinox!

In some regions of the western hemisphere, the beautiful blush of spring is well underway. Here at Ravenseyrie we are yet in-between winter and spring,---which is, frankly, a rather uncomely time. The slow retreat of the snow reveals a landscape covered in semi-frozen manure, dissipated dead plant matter and the un-cached bones once carefully hidden away by the dogs. I've many times referred to our yard looking much more like an abandoned Viking encampment than the habitat of a tree-hugging vegan couple.

We've been graced with a lot of sunshine and sometimes even with temperatures above freezing. The open grasslands are now well exposed (or under water and ice), but at the edges and within the forest proper remains a depth of snow that yet measures above boot tops.

The horses and mules were actually friskier during the deep freeze of winter! Now their footing is too precarious for much reckless cavorting about, and anyhow, it feels so good to spend the day dozing and soaking up the sun or simply shuffling about in a mini-torpor, leaving behind piles of hay to pick at microscopic emerging grass shoots, heaving long equine sighs and dreaming of the full arrival of spring.

There has been no shedding of hair yet, which is good, because this morning the thermometer read just 10°F for the first calendar day of spring. Everything was frozen solid and frosty at dawn. But now, we are above freezing with the steady pulsing of the March sun working magic over the landscape once again.

I have a few videos embedded with today's journal entry; one taken this morning, the other two taken several days ago. Let's look at today's footage first (after an introduction to what we'll be viewing):

I had noticed while out walking that occasionally one or two of the horses would leave their breakfast hay and wander over to the edge of the seasonal run off, where just the day before a good fresh drink could be had. It seemed to me that even though the ice I was walking on was frozen solid, and the spot where the horses were traveling to was equally firm, yet they each appeared to be taming their thirsts just the same.

Altamiro is leaving the ice hole, while Bella is now taking her drink. Below, a close up of her drinking from the ice hole. I made a wide half circle so that on the return of my walk I could investigate this spot the horses appeared to be drinking from. I found several areas where the foot prints from the horses passage during the melt had left big holes in the ice that were now frozen over, but not so thickly that I couldn't vigorously poke through to the water below with my walking stick. I scanned the snow-packed-ice until I saw slight hoof print impressions near the hole that Bella and Altamiro had been drinking from earlier. It was my good fortune that as I was appreciating the marvel of this drinking hole, Animado came along to have a drink too. I snapped a few photos and then recorded some video footage of him drinking:

This makes me so happy to see the horses getting fresh water like this, and the small opening reminds me of the little stainless steel troughs of the automatic waterers installed in some barns with water always at the ready.

When the temperature is above freezing, during this uncomely in-between time at Ravenseyrie, the horses can pretty much get water any where they want. Zeus has just slacked his thirst in this photo and seems to be contemplating the change of seasons while he stands on a bit of high ground:

Part of the landscape looked incredibly odd a few days ago as the water below the ice would seem to swell up and freeze glacier like:
While it was still quite frozen, Maeb seemed to take even more pleasure than normal in playing with her red ball (which is actually a horse ball, but Maeb made herself owner of it, exclusively. I have one photo and then some video footage. I would be surprised that you don't find yourself grinning and laughing after viewing these images!

The snow-pack from the yard and by the fence where the horses eat their morning oats has begun to thaw, and Kevin has painstakingly chipped out little canals encouraging the water to flow away from the sheds. This particular canal, however, is one that nature formed on her own and it was flowing like a river the other day.

For the past two years we've had a pair of Canada Geese that spend the spring with us. They have returned again this year (one week earlier than last year), and I can get some nicer photos now that I have a better camera.
A lone Redwing Blackbird made an appearance on the same day the Canada Geese returned. I heard his distinct voice, saw him in the apple tree and took a photo. I love this camera!:

Our domestic geese haven't been able yet to make their way down to the seasonal lake in the grassland area, so they make the best of things in the puddles in our yard. They are very much aware that the "fair-weather" Canada Geese have returned and they seem to project an air of haughtiness and ownership of the area--after all they have stuck it out here for the entire winter, unlike the wimpy wild geese who left for warmer locales when things got tough.
Uncomely as parts of the landscape are in this "in-between" time, there are yet some truly beautiful scenes, and so much promise of renewal, one has to embrace the uglier elements, for they serve as a bridge between winter and spring, and I for one, am ready to walk across it!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

When the Mundane Becomes Extraordinary

Close up view of Canadian "snake fence" at Ravenseyrie

D.T. Suzuki's
book, An Introduction to Zen Buddhism (first published in 1934) is considered a classic primer for Westerners desiring to learn a bit about this distinctly Eastern philosophy. Today's journal entry offers readers this excerpt from the chapter titled Practical Zen:

A Confucian scholar writes, "They seek the truth too far away from themselves, while it is right near them." The same thing may be said of Zen. We look for its secrets where they are most unlikely to be found, that is, in verbal abstractions and metaphysical subtleties, whereas the truth of Zen really lies in the concrete things of our daily life. A monk asked the master: "It is some time since I came to you to be instructed in the holy path of the Buddha, but you have never given me even an inkling of it. I pray you to be more sympathetic." To this the following answer was given: "What do you mean, my son? Every morning you salute me, and do I not return it? When you bring me a cup of tea, do I not accept it and enjoy drinking it? Besides this, what more instructions do you desire from me?"
Is this Zen? Is this the kind of life-experience Zen wants us to have? A Zen poet sings, "How wondrously strange, and how miraculous this! I draw water, I carry fuel."...
...Do these examples make the subject in hand any clearer or more intelligible than before? I can multiply such instances indefinitely, but those so far cited may suffice to show that Zen is after all not a very complicated affair, or a study requiring the highest faculty of abstraction and speculation. The truth and power of Zen consists in its very simplicity, directness and utmost practicalness. "Good morning; how are you today?" "Thank you, I am well" --here is Zen. "Please have a cup of tea" --this, again is full of Zen. When a hungry monk at work heard the dinner-gong he immediately dropped his work and showed himself in the dining-room. The master, seeing him, laughed heartily, for the monk had been acting Zen to its fullest extent. Nothing could be more natural; the one thing needful is just to open one's eye to the significance of it all.

The Adorable Australian Shepherd/Blue Heeler pooch, Shelagh

It may perhaps be easier to "open one's eye to the significance of it all" living here on Manitoulin Island...(although certainly there are many living and working here who unwittingly nurture chaos in their day to day routines as much as the city-dwellers of Toronto)...yet, undeniably, there is an energy vibrating here that lends itself to experiencing that which is typically mundane as something much more extraordinary.

Surely, Ravenseyrie, with its exposure to the elements and remote ruggedness makes it virtually impossible to be anywhere but in the "now". Sharing this land with the primitive Sorraia and Sorraia Mustangs, the two domestic horses and three draft mules enhances the sense of belonging that we might not otherwise have--somehow the way they have integrated themselves into the landscape provides us a portal to recognizing the miraculous in everyday occurrences.
Bella, a registered Spanish Mustang of fairly good Sorraia phenotype
One of the foundation mares of the Sorraia Mustang Preserve
Dam of the first half-Sorraia foal in Canada, Animado by the purebred Sorraia stallion, Altamiro

While many of you are seeing the emergence of early spring flowers, nourishing rains and transient mud, here at Ravenseyrie, we still have snow, ice and frigid temperatures (it was 3°F when we fed the herd breakfast this morning). So I am VERY grateful for the variety of enchantments that everyday occurrences here provide...such things keep a long hard winter from depressing the spirit.
Kevin says "hello" from the door of our humble east bluff home
The window on the left is the kitchen/dining area,
the window on the right is the living room
From here we have a spectacular view of Ravenseyrie

Would you like to see a few of these extraordinary elements captured by the camera over the past few days?

The pups and I walked over to see what condition the creek was in. The light was glorious, the snow glittering. and the creek flowed musically underneath compacted snow. We paused to admire...and it was then I noticed the shape of the opening was very much like a "cookie-cut-out" of Maeb!
Or from the opposite side, looking down on it, maybe it looks more like a feline shape? (No doubt you cat fanciers will think so!)

Here was have a bit of artwork discovered on the south side of the house, where the sun has managed to melt away most of the snow. This is the first area typically to "spring" to life, and our two geese have already been frequenting this warm retreat and leaving a sense of themselves for me to delight in discovering.

One morning, not too long after sun-up, while out walking with the pups, I noticed that our shadows were traveling well ahead of us and that they seemed to possess identities much different than our own. It seemed when I stopped to take a photo of these shadows the shadows had stopped to look back at us! The phrase "to shadow" means "to follow"...what does it mean then when one's shadow is leading the way?

I thought I would also share this photo because it rather caught me by surprise. I took this photo of Ciente eating her breakfast hay, I initially believed she was sharing it with her son, Interessado. It wasn't until after uploading the photo to the computer I realized that it was Belina's filly, Fada, who was breakfasting with Ciente. It is unusual for these two gals to be hanging out together.

On Monday, I was able to spend quite a bit of time among the herd grooming them and just generally going with the flow of their afternoon. Shelagh and Maeb found some unattended piles of hay and made themselves comfortable while I curried winter hair and detangled manes and tails.
After grooming Jerry, Dee, Altamiro, Doll, Belina, Zeus, Mistral and Zorita I needed to take a break, so I went and sat on a sun-warmed rock. First Mistral (who left his pile of hay!) came over and just stood facing me, with his muzzle warm on my face...within minutes his eyes were closed and he began making soft snoring noises. Doll then came up along side me with her left leg pressing my right shoulder. I began softly stroking her leg (much as I do when one of the dogs settle in next to me) and soon, she too was droopy-headed and dozy. The contrast of color between her rich chestnut coat and that potent, vibrant blue sky beckoned to be captured by the camera:Doll provided me not just with a special photo, but she also demonstrated that like Shelagh and Tobacco, once you begin petting or stroking them, if you stop doing this--even when it seems that they have fallen asleep--they will squint open their eyes and paw at you until you resume stroking them. Each time I would stop stroking Doll's leg, she would nuzzle my head or lap with her muzzle, stopping only once I began stroking her leg again. It felt so incredibly intimate and did we ever come to imagine that equines were rather unfeeling beasts of burden?

When the mundane becomes extraordinary, such insights into the higher meaning of things are abundant in my world, and stretch my mind to new ideas, new ways of being...

American artist, Georgia O'Keeffe was a prolific letter writer (in addition to being an avante-gard painter) and her entire life to me seemed to be an exclamation of joy of the magic abundant in simple things. In a letter to Anita Pollitzer (in 1917 prior to O'Keeffe's fame) she wrote, "I discovered that by running against the wind with a bunch of pine branches in your hand you could have the pine trees singing right in your ears."

I'll bet you can see, now, how "the truth of Zen really lies in the concrete things of our daily life"...May you recognize and enjoy the mundane made extraordinary in your own lives.

(Oh! and thank you to Sue for dropping by with a comment in the last entry of Journal of Ravenseyrie--it was a pleasure to learn a former islander is following along with this journal. When you come back to visit, for sure you can stop and meet the horses, whom you must already feel as if you know well.)

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

We Are the Cold

Snow Buntings of Ravenseyrie, living with us up on the East Bluff for the fourth consecutive winter...when the snow is gone, so are they...

Kevin and I have a special phrase that we affirm to each other as a means of summoning up the motivation, strength and courage to go on about our winter chores here at the Ravenseyrie Sorraia Mustang Preserve on Manitoulin Island.My wonderful Kevin, fetching firewood on a 10°F morning at Ravenseyrie

This morning, with the calendar showing that it is indeed March the third, but with the thermometer reading -18°F, our special phrase was expressly called for: We are the cold! Sometimes this phrase is accompanied by a double "high-5" and Sumo-wrestler-type grunts and finished with a resonating, "Hoo-waah!" Then we are psyched and ready to take our heavily layered, bulked up forms out into the purple freeze of pre-dawn and bring the herd their breakfast. (A variation of this pep rally--complete with 'burly-man' stretches--takes place when we have to push a new 800lb bale of hay upright in the shed so that it's ready for peeling off layers at feeding time.)

Ever since last Thursday's snow and wind storm, we have been getting frigid temperatures again. Each night it has dropped down to the minus teens (°F) and only rising up to plus 8 to 10°F during the day. Mostly, there hasn't been but a light breeze, though on Sunday, that breeze was strong enough to bite, so we sledded out the herd's meals to the lee-side of the north forest. The sun was warming up this particular windbreak through the entire day, making for a nice place to pass a winter's day eating, sleeping and playing. I took my camera out after the late day hay was laid out and took some photos to share. Before I share them, I'll put in an image taken yesterday afternoon as some of the herd weaved the way up the "Zen Elm" trail to the windbreak where we had fed them the prior day...this will give you a sense of distance...I snapped this photo while looking out to the north while the camera was poised on a tripod inside the house:
And these are the photos taken on Sunday from the comfort of this nicely situated windbreak:


Animado and Jerry

Left to right: Belina, Altamiro, Interessado and Ciente

Left to right: Mistral, Fada and Altamiro


Zeus, who is taking a break from his hay to rub against a tree

I don't have photos of Dee and Doll from this session, but I'll make up for it by showing some of them in the next sequence of photos.

I'd like to take a pause from the photos for a bit though to discuss just how difficult a winter this has been for the herd. I know there are readers of this journal that are devoted to "natural horse-keeping", as are Kevin and I, so what I have to relay may interest you. We expected we would be feeding more hay this year due to having one new mare and three foals added to the herd and we ordered enough hay to compensate for these extra mouths. What we didn't plan for was to begin feeding almost three weeks earlier than usual and then having to feed especially heavy because of prolonged deep-freeze temperatures. We are putting out almost double the amount of hay than what was required last year, and feeding double rations of oats as well. Nearly everyone has lost weight this winter, but none moreso than Mistral and Ciente. Our horses and mules appear to cope very well with the harshness of winter in a semi-wild setting...but I do wonder if they would perish if like truly wild horses, they had to totally fend for themselves? I doubt there is enough forage on the 360 acres open to our herd to supply them with enough to eat during a harsh winter such as this.

Mistral is twenty-nine years old and is typically an "easy-keeper", but obviously the extreme cold has been taxing his energy reserves. He remains robust in spirit, but I want to see him robust in body again.

Ciente is our coming four year old Kiger Mustang mare. With Interessado still nursing off her and a growing foal inside of her, this sweet young mare (who is not an "easy-keeper") has never had opportunity to build up any energy reserves and so like Mistral, is looking much too thin. It's in these times when if not given special assistance the horses' immune systems may become compromised and leave them open to contracting a number of illnesses. We have been sneaking Ciente compressed alfalfa hay cubes and last week have begun providing both her and Mistral a high protein processed feed supplement. Typically I don't like sweetened, highly processed feed, (I like knowing the full ingredients of what I'm eating or what I'm feeding others) but these two horses are obviously requiring more than what we are providing at the usual meal times and we feel a "quick pick-me-up" is called for. If I had a barn, I could separate them from the rest of the herd and provide them extra meals, but that's not an option available just now. No one steals Mistral's supplement, but we do have to stand guard over Ciente in order for her to eat her ration. It's tricky all the way around, and I think some of the other herd members are becoming affronted because they aren't getting these extras. I've been rather beside myself with worry at how thin Mistral and Ciente are...Kevin reminds me that in less than eight weeks I'll be beside myself with worry because everyone will be getting too fat on the new spring grass.

Yesterday, before the late day meal was finished, Dee, Doll and Zorita left their remaining hay to the others and they went out in search of those delicate green shoots that are singing a song of spring from beneath the deep snow.
The half-Sorraia/half Sulphur Mustang mare, Sovina's Zorita digs for grass beneath the snow

Doll and Dee dig through the snow for succulent green grass shoots

Last evening, as the sun quietly slipped lower down the blue dome of the sky, the temperature sank as well, making for some exquisite colors while the herd took their leave from their dinner site and migrated off to the east sector to spend the evening digging for grass shoots and nibbling on twigs and bark. Once again, I had the camera set on the tripod and took these photos from the expansive windows of our house--with views like this, I just think I must be the luckiest gal on Manitoulin Island. Sure it's been damn cold here, and the snowstorms have been especially wicked this year...but it seems like a fair trade for all this magical least that's the way Kevin and I feel...after all, "we are the cold!"
Zorita looking very primitive and exquisite in the late day sunglow

The herd slowly crosses over to the east
Good night ponies and mules! See you for breakfast in the morning!