Tiny Yard/Big Dreams

My new yard in Tigard is small, but large windows  that look out on the back garden are one of the biggest reasons I settled on the little house. When I’m not walking in a refuge or a local park, I still hope to enjoy backyard wildlife.
In a year or two, with new plants replacing the old arbor vitae, my back yard will be a pleasant place for local wildlife – and for me.
Birds haven’t discovered the new bath yet. It can take a while for  them to trust a new source of food and water.  I happy to say that Hummingbirds  have found the feeder by my bedroom window.
I dream of putting in a very small standing pond with a bubbler in the future, and I’m still wondering if feeding sunflower seed will be possible in this tiny yard.
I don’t know if I’ll ever have another relationship with a tree like the bond I felt with a large old oak at my old home, but I hope to be on friendly terms with the baby Crepe Myrtle I put in and perhaps with a small Dogwood I may plant.
It’s a good sign that my brand new garden is already welcoming tiny frogs, honey bees, big fat bumblebees, and butterflies.
On the day I spot a wren or a robin in the bird bath I’ll have a quiet celebration and tell you all about it.

Saturday Night Wild

Saturday night I was sitting up in bed writing a few emails and thinking about how how excited I will be to get work started on the little house I recently bought.

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The bedroom window was open about two inches admitting a taste of sweet, cool, night air. Suddenly, the room filled with yips, barks, and howls, the sounds drifting in from somewhere out in the night. I might have been hearing a dozen animals all at once, maybe only three. I couldn’t tell.

Coyote song lifts me, makes me smile, and inspires me to imagine an untamed life even as it sends chills down my spine.

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Mind your cats and small animals. Respect the coyote as a wild, hungry, scavenger and predator. I do.
Even so, I sleep especially well when I hear them at night from my warm bed.

Feeding the Birds


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Feeding wild birds can be a delightful distraction in these days of social isolation; but not so much when you find yourself dealing with sprouting seed under your feeder, wet and rotting bird seed, and squirrels who hog what little is left. It took years, but I finally learned that it is possible to enjoy feeding backyard birds without the mess, the spoilage, and the waste, and without inviting rodents to share the feast.

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White Crowned Sparrow

I learned by making mistakes, many mistakes; none more disconcerting than the sunny afternoon I realized I was hosting a family of rats under the feeder (The Honeymooners). Having made so many mistakes, I’d like to share some things that took all the fuss out of what should be one of life’s small joys.

To get the most pleasure out of your yard birds you really only need a few things, a source of water, a good quality feeder and the right food.

Water
Whether you feed or not, consider a bird bath filled with fresh, clean water. Thirsty birds will gladly stop by, and the antics of bathing birds are endlessly entertaining. An inexpensive concrete bath is perfect, but a shallow bowl or ceramic container will do. Even a large rock with a natural indentation makes a lovely bath.

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Many creatures appreciate the bird bath

Most important is a clean bath and fresh water. The bath should be kept free of scum. I keep a stiff brush by the faucet to quickly clean the concrete bath as I replenish water. The best bird baths have a gradual slope so that the birds can wade into the depth they prefer. If yours doesn’t slope, a few decorative rocks of different sizes will enable birds to use it more easily.

Feeder and Seed
Your feeder should keep seed dry. Rotting seed, wasted seed, and the mess under your feeder, can kill the birds and will eventually make you feel like trashing the idea of bird feeding.

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I stick with a gazebo style feeder and keep it full of sunflower “hearts” (chopped sunflower seeds). Sunflower hearts are the only seed I buy. Since they are already shelled and broken up, even finches love them.

Don’t waste your money on bags of seed mixes. They contain a large percentage of “filler” seeds that the birds don’t eat. You’ll find sunflower hearts in the in the garden section of your grocery store, not the pet section. You can also get them at bird shops, and yard and garden stores.

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The gazebo style feeder is ideal for beauty and practicality. Food stays dry until the bird enters the feeder and coaxes the seed from the plastic center cone. A mesh floor keeps water from collecting in the feeder. Because the seed is dispensed in the center of the gazebo, and because it holds only shelled, chopped, sunflower seeds, not a single shell or seed hits the ground. There is absolutely no waste, no shells to attract rodents, and no rot to sicken the birds.

Placing your Feeder
Pick an open spot in your yard, about ten feet from overhanging branches, or any structure which will allow a clever squirrel to jump on top of the feeder. Don’t place your feeder near undergrowth where your neighbor’s cat can lay in wait. Mount your feeder about five feet high (a metal pole in a concrete block is ideal). Don’t forget to add an inexpensive metal squirrel baffle under the feeder, about four feet above the ground.

IMG_0382Now you are ready for years of bird watching without the mess.

Suet
If you are interested in attracting colorful woodpeckers, and delightful flocks of tiny Bush Tits, you may consider offering suet to the birds. Suet is fat from cattle and a delight to woodpeckers and other insect eaters. Directions for making suet are available online but I much prefer buying suet blocks at same place I get seed. It’s not expensive, and the birds have not complained.

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Flicker Enjoying his Suet

Suet can also attract more aggressive birds like Starlings, Crows, and Jays; birds that can quickly finish off a suet cake and discourage the birds you want to feed. The trick is to buy a holder that is only open on the bottom. Woodpeckers and Bush Tits are fine hanging upside down while they dine; crows and starlings don’t like it at all and will soon give up trying.

Hummingbirds
Hummingbirds are fascinating back yard guests. The often behave like ferocious little terriers of the bird world, zipping after each other like fighter pilots and keeping the area around a feeder exciting. The formula for food is simple, four parts water, one-part sugar. Never use honey or any other kind of sweetener and never add coloring. It’s important to thoroughly wash the feeders and give fresh food frequently.

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I’m hoping there is something here that will make your bird feeding simpler, less messy, and much more fun. Wishing you a happy spring enjoying the wild birds in your own yard!
Be well!

Close to Home

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Teddy

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Most of us have been sequestered during the last couple of weeks, preoccupied with the health and well-being of our loved ones and ourselves. Some have been busy providing health care and other critical services.

Thanks to wet weather,  Teddy and I have stayed close to home on our walks.  It’s been an opportunity to appreciate spring in the neighborhood. Waving at neighbors and greeting them (from 6′ away) is one way to hold on to a feeling of connection.

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Despite the human state of anxiety, the natural world has moved forward and suddenly it is spring.

Teddy stopped to examine pee mail the other day and I noticed tiny red maple leaf buds beginning to stretch and uncurl, ready to meet their season in the sun. Other trees are heavy with so many blossoms there is enough left over to carpet the ground.

Small white daisies adorn  neighbor’s lawns, and daffodils are already nearly done blooming.

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I noticed a robin, just one, sitting and singing from the most prominent peak of each house on the block. One robin for each house. I admire the robins for their equitable distribution of territory.

 

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Peace that comes from getting close to nature can be as simple as stepping outside and paying attention. I hope you are clinging to good things, the people and things that keep you grounded while we wait for this strange time to pass, and it will pass. Be well.

 

Three Thunderstorms

Last April, at my home in Milwaukie, I enjoyed one particularly wild and stormy night.  I slept better than I had in weeks that night.  It wasn’t that the storm didn’t wake me; but each time I woke I went back to sleep enjoying the thunder, the wind, and the pounding rain.

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My neighbors at the time had two or three tall fir trees in their yard. If those trees had lost their footing in the soil, they might have destroyed one end of the house. That could have been unfortunate for Teddy and me as we slept in the shadow of the firs. But a small group of healthy firs are safer than a lone tree. They entangle their roots and protect each other from the elements.

I relaxed in my bed that night and enjoyed the staccato of fir cones bouncing across the roof, and branches hitting the shingles then rolling toward the ground, or catching in the gutters. The relentless rain, so dreary in daytime, is just a lullaby at night.

A week ago, here in Newberg, we had a small thunderstorm. It wasn’t quite as dramatic as the spring storm, but it was a pleasure.

I was eight years old when I first remember a thunderstorm. My mother came into the bedroom late one night and shook me awake.

“Get up and come with me!” she said,  “I have something to show you.”

On our tiny covered front porch she had set up two chairs.

“I wanted you to see the thunderstorm!” she said.shutterstock_285666491

We sat there, watching lightening fill the night sky. The storm seemed to be directly overhead.  I don’t remember if there was rain.

My mother’s face was lifted to the spectacle over our heads. She was smiling and full of awe. The mental torments she lived with were absent that night. She was happy and she wanted to share it with me.

I think that’s why I still love a storm.

 

Labor of Love

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David and Lenda Black worked side-by-side on their Woodburn home for thirteen years. As they worked, they turned a modest 1970’s home and lot into a one-of-a-kind garden showplace. They have artfully blended the tidy look of a formal garden with the relaxed warmth of home and garden; a place where one might wander and lose track of time for hours.

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David & Lenda Black

Tall fir trees surround parts of David and Lenda’s back yard, making a lovely backdrop for flower beds and providing home to a pair of large hawks (possibly Northern Harriers). While Lenda and I savored lunch on the patio, chipmunks, ground squirrels, and tree squirrels, enjoyed sunflower seeds at their nearby feeding station.

 

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Partial view of back garden as seen from the screened patio (to see the back yard before the project began 13 years ago, go to the end of this article)

Although there is plenty of plant variety in David and Lenda’s yard, it’s not hard to guess that Hydrangeas are Lenda’s favorite.

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“Buttons & Bows” Hydrangea

 

“If I could have only one flower in my garden, it would be Hydrangeas,” Lenda said.

 

 

 

 

Hydrangeas bloomed in many colors that day, some varieties with flowers so unusual Lenda had to tell me they were Hydrangeas.

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“Annabell” Hydrangea (Lenda sometimes calls them “Mopheads”

 

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Hydrangea with Lace Cap Flowers

Like most gardeners, Lenda admits that she sometimes sees only the weeds that appear overnight and forgets to appreciate what she and David have created.

Every corner of David and Lenda’s garden is well-loved. The side yards are tended and cultivated as lovingly as the back and front yards. Every bed is home to many happy plants, and flower beds have pleasing shapes and soft edges. The beds seem balanced, with each plant seeming to belong exactly where it is, though Lenda says they didn’t plan the garden in advance.

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Lenda calls this spectacular Hydrangea “Pink Spirit”

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As Lenda and I walked, I realized what a generous source of life a well-loved garden can be. Everywhere I looked there was movement; hummingbirds, bees and other insects, tiny white butterflies moving from bush to bush, and huge yellow and black Swallowtail Butterflies. The garden was teeming with creatures dancing quickly from plant to plant, and flower to flower, while colorful Goldfinches took turns at the feeders.

 

 

 

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One of many lush spots in David & Lenda’s gardens

As we walked through the yard, I couldn’t help but imagine the balance of heavy labor and tenderness that created Lenda’s garden.

 

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A portion of the side yard. Just beyond the daisies is the vegetable garden.

“I look to the garden for peaceful reflection and to keep the body in motion,” Lenda said. “David considers himself a Jack of all trades, master of none; yet he constantly amazes me with his ability to learn new skills.He has done all of the remodeling of our home and has built all of the garden structures.”

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One of David’s creations built to support the huge Wisteria. On the other side of this structure is a play area for grandchildren and a strawberry patch for the children (and the birds!).

David created the door that leads from the house to the covered patio and the back garden. It is simple and lovely, made of straight grain fir, which I will admit means absolutely nothing to me. I only know that I find the door very beautiful.

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From Inside Looking out to the patio and garden.

The first time I saw that door it seemed to speak me, “Welcome, I am an invitation, a promise that you will be delighted when you walk through to the garden beyond”

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Looking in from the patio you can see the lovely doors and the cedar ceiling David installed over the patio.

David recently created a beautiful clear cedar tongue and groove ceiling for the covered patio. He also screened in the patio, which in no way inhibits the view of the garden, but did enable a delicious, yellow-jacket free, fresh air lunch the day I was there.

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The garden structure from the screened patio

Lenda and David are modest about the beautiful home they have remodeled and the amazing garden they have built from scratch, though they confess it was, “an awful lot of work.”

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Another view from the patio
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She was kind enough to pose for a minute

A few minutes before I left their home, David, Lenda, and I were admiring a large blooming white Hydrangea in the back yard. Only a few feet away from where we stood, a bunny was busy collecting grass in her mouth. She didn’t seem to mind us as we watched her carry the grass under a large bush where she settled down comfortably on her nest. She was just another example of the richness of David and Lenda’s garden, and she was a delightful end to a lovely afternoon!

 

 

The back yard before David and Lenda began their gardens:

 

 

Cedar Creek Trail

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The lazy, drone of bullfrogs follows Teddy and I up and down the Cedar Creek Trail during our early morning walks. Bullfrogs, merciless hunters of our native wildlife, are with us to stay, so I allow myself to enjoy their tuneless call.unnamed-6

Several weeks ago, my dog Teddy and I stumbled upon the Cedar Creek Trail behind the YMCA in Sherwood. Stepping into such a peaceful world so near the busy highway was a delightful surprise.

The paved trail is surrounded by lush greenery; lovely suburban homes sit on one side and natural wetlands and wildlife haven stretch the length of the other side. In quiet places along the creek, red wing blackbirds sing from the top of old snags, and impressive stands of tall fir trees create a forest habitat where chipmunks play amidst fallen logs on the forest floor.

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In the busy days since recently moving from Milwaukie to Newberg, I’ve missed the small daily adventure of immersing myself in the sight and smell of the outdoors and quietly observing the ordinary lives of suburban wildlife. Fortunately, I’m learning that this area has many opportunities for outdoor exploration.

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Our first morning on the Cedar Creek trail I kept expecting the path to end around the next corner, but it continued through several neighborhoods with side trails giving access to the main trail. I followed the path as it snaked alongside the natural habitat, stopping to listen to birdsong, smell the fresh air, and pay attention to occasional rustling in the brush.

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Along the trail I heard the buzz-trill of busy Towhees calling and flitting about in the low branches. I’ve never seen so many Towhees in such close proximity, though it is the busy nesting season. The songs of many birds fill the air and every few feet a robin hops about carrying a worm or grub. We would marvel at the beauty of the robin if we didn’t see them so often.

The creek flows evenly and gently in some places then stalls for a while, flattening out and providing quiet habitat for water birds and other creatures before turning into a gurgling, free-flowing body of water.

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Three tiny bunnies hopped about on the trail ahead of me one morning, then they dashed toward the brush when they saw me. One bunny allowed me to stand only a few feet from him while he held still and silent, hoping he had become invisible. In silhouette he looked like a little piece of yard art. As soon as I tried to get his picture he made a dash for the underbrush.

Two weeks ago, I watched a pair of quail moving in and out of the bushes and, a week later, saw the older birds with several recently hatched babies.

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Towhee 

I have yet to see a dog loose in the protected habitat, though there are plenty of dog walkers on the trail in the morning. Joggers, and dog walkers, birdwatchers, and day dreamers all seem to understand the importance of leaving the habitat to the wild creatures.

I’m just beginning to learn about the Cedar Creek Trail and other remarkable ways that the community has integrated wetland and natural habitat in the middle of human habitation. It’s a unique and extraordinary sign of a healthy community.

 

Serenade

 

 

A few weeks ago, a new frog made the pond his home. He wasn’t a bullfrog; Jeremiah had a very distinctive sound. He didn’t sound like one of the lovely little Pacific Tree Frogs that are the size of my thumbnail but sound as though they’re the size of my dog, Teddy. I was hearing something different, a frog I’ve never heard before, but definitely a frog. Continue reading “Serenade”

One Step Too Far

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Japanese Anemone one of my favorites (photo by Shutterstock)

I stepped into the middle of my Japanese anemones the other day, intending to cut off blossoms and stems past their prime. I had cut a few stems when I took one step closer to the center of the spent blooms and was immediately surrounded by an angry buzzing horde of black and yellow striped demons.

I ran, of course, but they flew faster. I felt a sting on my shoulder and another on my arm. I ran some more. One or two stings wasn’t good enough for them. They kept coming. I flew across the front yard screaming, unashamed of humiliating myself in my own yard, swatting myself all over.  I felt another sharp pain in my shoulder, then another, then a pain on my hand. 
They were relentless!
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I screamed some more and shook my left hand as a Yellow-jacket clung tightly to the space between thumb and fingers. Shaking him off was impossible with that business end so deeply imbedded.

The neighbors weren’t outside. If they had been, they would have heard me uncensored.

“No, get off of me you monster!” I screamed.

I’ll be honest. I never used the word ‘monster’ that day. Instead, it was a word that burned the end of my tongue when it flew out of my mouth, a word I don’t recall ever using before. I’m not proud of myself; but please, judge me when you have a dozen yellow-jackets riding and stinging you all at once.

At the same time, more ‘monsters’ had formed a buzzing cloud around me as I pumped my legs and prayed they wouldn’t follow me into the house. 
Yes, I was also praying.

Finally, I brushed the Yellow-jacket from my hand and ran for the door.

A split second of relief hit me as I closed the door behind myself and stood in the kitchen.

Then I felt a sharp pain in my right shoulder again, and another on my left upper arm. A yellow-jacket flew off my right arm for a second then settled back down to deliver more punishment.

Teddy had been watching me through the front window as I screamed and flailed across the yard. Now that I was in the house, still screaming, the little dog looked confused and worried. He quickly decided there was nothing he could do. Much later, I had to coax him out from under the bed . I don’t blame him. Not even Lassie could have helped.

It turns out that when I’m desperate, my mind can work fast.
I ran into the laundry room and slammed the door to confine the little demons. Yellowjackets still clung to my shirt. I closed my eyes and held my breath as I pulled the shirt over my head and past my face and hair. Then I threw that shirt in the washer and slammed the lid down.
Now the tables were turned and I was feeling murderous. I turned the water setting to hot. 
I let that machine run for a full cycle.
An hour or two later, I felt a little braver and cautiously opened the machine. Carefully, I  lifted and shook the shirt. Dead Yellowjackets littered the bottom of the washer.
Benadryl and ibuprofen helped with the eight or ten stings I had. My left hand swelled to the size of a baseball mitt. I also visited the doctor for one dose of steroids to help the swelling.

This unusually warm and sunny fall weather has kept the Yellowjackets active so far, but the nest should die soon. It’s in a spot that endangers only me, the family gardener. 

Yellowjackets aren’t active when it’s cold, and the early mornings are very chilly lately. If the cold doesn’t get them soon, I have a plan.

Blackberry Pie and a White Horse

In August, blackberries are plentiful and free, if you know where to look.I missed the ripe blackberries this year; but I plan to find a great patch of them next summer. Warm blackberry pie, topped with a scoop of ice cream, is well worth wrestling with the vicious thorns

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My daughter Jennifer was a baby when I carried her, and a plastic bucket for berries, to a small blackberry patch in our back yard. Picking berries with Jennifer had seemed like a great idea but when I got to the back of the yard I couldn’t find a good place to lay her down. The brushy ground was rough, uneven, and studded with a low-growing tangle of blackberry vines.

I noticed a huge stand of blackberry bushes across our back fence and in the middle of a pleasant field of grass. Big, juicy berries practically dripped off the vines and the grassy field was a perfect spot to lay the baby on her blanket. I had never seen a soul in that field and it was would be a shame to let those berries go to waste.

Holding the baby, I stepped carefully over the fence where it had been crushed by a fallen fir limb. I lay her down on her blanket just two feet from the edge of the blackberries. She was happy there, rocking on her chubby tummy, waving her arms, and gurgling.

The August morning was beautiful. We were all alone and at peace, surrounded by an occasional bird song or buzzing insect. Every minute or two, I glanced at the baby as I quietly filled my bucket. No need to get too close to the vines and risk the thorns because the outside vines were covered in berries. I worked contentedly to about fifteen feet from the baby, who was still gurgling and exercising her limbs.

Only a minute or two went by when some small noise caused me to turn my head. When I did, my stomach lurched in terror.Out of nowhere a huge, white horse had appeared, and was standing directly over the baby. How had it come to stand over the baby while barely making a noise? What should I do?

 

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This horse was thick bodied, tall, and heavily muscled; much larger than horses I’ve seen in fields or those once ridden by Portland’s mounted police. Instinctively, I knew this was a working animal, an animal who could pull something huge and heavy. Chilled to the bone and frozen in place, I stared at my little girl lying under that animal’s front feet.

In mere seconds many thoughts crowded my mind. Why had I stepped over that fence onto this property? Where had this horse come from? Even from this side of the fence I couldn’t see a house or a barn. How could I have been so stupid? How would I live with myself if something happened to the baby?

I wanted to run and grab my child, but she was directly in front of those huge front hooves. If the animal panicked or put a hoof on the baby’s back it would kill her.I couldn’t risk alarming the horse.

Jennifer was a good-natured and easy-going child. Thankfully, that was her mood as she lay there oblivious to the horse and my terror.

The horse seemed calm. I decided not to move. Softly, gently, using a tone I hoped was calming, I pretended I was pleased and comfortable with the animal.

“Hi there, honey. Do you see my baby at your feet?”

As I spoke, the horse stood still, assessing the situation. His ears twisted back and forth as I explained that I was a friend and only wanted to bake a blackberry pie that afternoon. 
 
I hoped he was moving his ears because he was interested in our conversation, not because he was irritated. He didn’t seem alarmed and stayed quietly in place except for his ears, tiny twitches in the muscles of his legs, and the occasional slight flick of his tail.

After five minutes of one-way conversation, my heart stopped as the horse began to move. The huge creature then stepped calmly, daintily, over my baby, turned his back to us, and quietly wandered off. Stunned for a moment, I then snatched up my baby and took her back across the fence… where we should have been all along.

For a few minutes in that sunny field, we three souls were my entire world. There was the innocent child, the trespassing blackberry picker, and a mysterious white horse who controlled every important thing that could happen that day. 
 
I wouldn’t repeat the experience, but there was a little bit of magic in it.