a parent perplexity

Recently I asked my three children this question:  “What do you think about naked people on a calendar?”  They were surprised by the question, because in their collective awareness, calendars and nudity haven’t yet mixed.  So they giggled–“Weird!” said the 10-year-old.

I asked another question:  “What do you know about compost?” All three of them nodded sagely, since for as long as they remember, their schools (and their mother) have taught them to separate food scraps, pile the debris near gardens at school and at home, and later on spread the rich dark remains on the very food crops and flowers my kids will eat and share.  (Vermont takes early farm-education very seriously indeed.)  “Compost is good!” said the 7-year-old.

Next question:  “What do you know about fundraising?”  Well, to a Craftsbury school-kid, fundraisers are even more familiar than compost. “Seeds!” they all shouted, referring to a popular springtime fundraiser they’ve all participated in for years. (K-4th grade classes decorate seed envelopes with crayon images of produce, fill the envelopes with cleaned seed the students collected from a variety of crops they grew in the school gardens, and, with the proceeds of the fundraiser, buy things such as the plastic sleds they all share during wintertime recesses.  The students take a great deal of well-deserved pride in their fundraising efforts.) The 12-year-old, a veteran of many fundraising campaigns and thus more experienced in mathematical realities than his sisters, expanded on this:  “Fundraising is when somebody pays more money for something than it’s really worth, so you have some extra.”

Final question for synthesis and comprehension:  “What do you think about selling calendars of naked ladies sitting in compost, as  a fundraiser for a company who sells compost?”  Puzzled silence from all three, followed by a dismissive chorus: “Gross!  That doesn’t make any sense, mama.  Compost is things that decomposed.  It’s got bugs in it.”  (Vermont’s farm-to-school programs emphasize the importance of handwashing after handling compost.  So do I.)  I didn’t bother reading them the poorly constructed text accompanying the ad, since that only metaphorically relates to compost.

I’m participating in some discussion about this  little marketing conundrum, and meanwhile wondering how to best prepare my children for the adult madness that awaits them.


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This evening my eldest kid and I spent sunset floating on Lake Eligo, a narrow two-mile-long lake near our farm.  While his sisters are aquatically-inclined, and love jumping into Eligo even when its waters are unreasonably cold, Jason (and me, for that matter) prefer staying dry.  Canoeing suits us both, we’ve found.

Jason’s old enough to run a paddle, up there in the bow.  He’s not old enough to help hoist the 80+ pounds of 16′ canoe to the cartop rack.  He’s old enough to find humor in my efforts.  He’s not old enough for me to object to his commentary.  We get along just fine.

He’ll be twelve soon. He was born on the same day as his maternal great-grandfather, whom he reminds me of in this picture.  Maybe it’s the glasses.

This is his second canoe experience, and the first time he’s had to paddle for real.  We took it easy, noodling around the still water from one end of the lake to the other, looking at lots of stuff along the way.

Eligo is a glacier-formed basin, a narrow scrape in the bedrock. In some places along the eastern shore, the slope is precipitous.

When the lake is icebound, hungry deer walk along the fringe and browse the cedars and other softwood trees there. The summertime result: a neatly trimmed hedge effect, exactly one deer’s-reach above the waterline. Or one moose-reach, if they get there first.

Water seems thin and undependable, until you watch the waterbugs making dents in it. Their skinny skimmy legs are so frail-looking, yet they confidently skate around making miniature echoes of our big canoe’s wake.

When we made it to the southern end and turned around, we saw the western shore was shady already, while the eastern shore still caught the setting sun. This is my child for sure: he reasoned that somewhere in the middle of the lake, there would be a line between shade and sun. “Can we follow it?” he asked. “Let’s go find it,” I told him. He kept watch of the prow of the gunwale to track whether it were in the dark or the light, and by his navigation we paddled the lightline as long as we could.

The northern view from Eligo looks upon the ridgeline of the Lowell Mountains. Presently there is a proposed industrial wind project that would spike giant windmills along that ridge. There is also an opposition movement. I like that. It seems balanced, and I believe tension is a sign of vitality. Multiple viewpoints mean people are thinking from different perspectives. Different perspectives, like the bits of a hologram, add dimension to otherwise narrow and flat life.  Kind of like ripples on water, come to think.

Water is amazingly sculptable stuff, but you have to watch fast. Jason experimented with whirlpools and drippings from his paddle, after practicing steering the canoe by pushing or pulling against the water.

The northern end of the lake is the outlet end, shallower and full of emergent vegetation. Not far from these lily pads, I saw a plume of mud and bubbles which turned out to be a snapping turtle moving along the lake bottom.  I was thrilled–usually I only see them crossing the road.

Further along, we came to the littoral zone, where land plants and water plants peaceably coexist. We recognized things generally as willows, cattails, sedges, and ferns…but agreed we need to invest in a field guide soon.

Red-winged blackbirds are ubiquitous in wetlands around here. They perfectly demonstrate how a little color classes up an otherwise boring aspect. Blackbirds aren’t iridescent, the way starlings or martins are. They aren’t strikingly sized, like a raven or a crow. They’re just middle-sized dusty black birds–until you add those yellow-and-red bars. Their distinctive call note helps, too.

Eventually we ran out of lake. On the other side of this culvert, the north-flowing Black River begins its thirty-mile wend to Lake Memphremagog and the Canadian border. We did discuss flattening ourselves and going through the chute, but only in a theoretical way.

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mutatis mutandis

A succession of drizzly days has discouraged the crows in my corn patch, to my everlasting gratitude.  I’m not the only grateful one.  Zillions of non-corn seeds gladdened themselves out of dormancy into robust and active life.

Weeds.  Everybody who’s coped with them, has an opinion.  Among these quotes, I find thoughts from:

  • Donald Culrose Peattie “What is a weed?  I have heard it said that there are sixty definitions.  For me, a weed is a plant out of place.”
  • Doug Larson  “A weed is a plant that has mastered every survival skill except for learning how to grow in rows.”

What might the environmental humanities have to say about weeds, I wonder?

  • Socially, “Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them.”–A.A. Milne
  • Historically, “We can in fact only define a weed, mutatis mutandis, in terms of the well-known definition of dirt – as matter out of place.  What we call a weed is in fact merely a plant growing where we do not want it.”  ~E.J. Salisbury, The Living Garden, 1935
  • Culturally, “The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.” –Masanobu Fukuoka, One-Straw Revolution, 1978.

Fukuoka’s natural farming calls for no cultivation at all.  None.  Not a hoe, not by hand, not with chemicals.  Compare that to the conventional wisdom of clean-cultivation, which you may recall led to that travesty of agriculture, the Dust Bowl, which airlifted Oklahoma real estate clear to Greenland.

That’s quite a spectrum.  Looks like I could make a case for all weeds, or no weeds, or any amount of weeds in between.

One thing is clear to me:  my corn patch, which not many years ago was a cow pasture, is certainly going to have weeds.  Weed seeds persist for years.  Every time I hill my corn, I turn up seeds dropped by weeds from last decade.  That’s a heavy burden of inheritance to overcome, and if I longed to see clean brown soil punctuated only by monocrop corn, I should certainly despair of success.

If I’m going to despair about anything, it surely won’t be over something as minor as a corn patch.  Besides, my objective is not to produce the maximum corn possible on a little patch of ground–there are research universities to do that sort of thing.   My aim is to grow some beautiful corn for my horses, in exchange for some of my time in the garden.  I’ll knock back the worst of the weeds as my other life demands permit, and take comfort from Thomas Fuller, 17th century clergyman:  “A good garden may have some weeds.”


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corn, second attempt

When the replacement corn planting emerged, I guarded the sprouts all weekend long.  In my experience, they’re most vulnerable before their leaves start unfolding.


They are one dewdrop wide, at this point. I like when the droplet perches perfectly on top–I think it must be the inspiration for those mirrored-glass garden gazing balls, made to keep witches out of the garden. (They cannot abide their own distorted reflection, is why.)

My gospel warned me that even though I treated the corn seed, I still might lose some sprouts:  “It stands to reason that if a bird has established the habit of digging up seed corn for food, it will continue to destroy a certain amount of seed by digging it up, before becoming discouraged with the locality for furnishing a meal.”



I thought I allowed for this eventuality by sowing the seed corn thickly. I did not consider that a crow might obsess so: this row, for example, suffered systematic testing for several feet.

I thought when the second leaves unfurled, I could relax my watch.



This one was nearly half a foot tall. Why, crow? Why? I do think the crow might be losing interest, as this was a half-hearted attempt–the taproot, still anchored, is unbroken and the top hasn’t got that death-wilt complexion.   I propped it up, hilled it, and am hoping for the best.


The baby corn plants are over a week old now. They have sucked all the good from their seeds. Still bearing pine tar and ash, the kernels are but hollow husks of their former starchy plumpness. How many more must fall, before these crows are convinced?

I’m researching further options.

Allies:  From contemporary Cornell information, I learn that a Great Horned Owl would be an “important predator on crows and nestling.”  Hawks and eagles eat crows too, as do “snakes, raccoons, and man,” according to the sources of Fairfax County Public Schools.  And recipes make crow edible, perhaps.

Laughing it offMoe and Joe Crow, Two Corny Crows

Vigilante action:  Fifty years before Cornell published their pine-tar recommendation, an 1858 tale entitled “A Legend of Crow Hill” described Hans Vanderdonk, who “among the flocks of crows…waged a continual war.” Hans had many strings to his bow:   “A hundred bits of tin, wood, and looking glass”, “numerous scarecrows”, “a successful shot with a long gun.”  This is my favorite:  “Sometimes he made the crows drunk on corn soaked in whiskey, and as they reeled about the hillocks knocked them on the head.”

Legal recourse:  I could draft a cease-and-desist, maybe.  In True Grit, Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne) tried that on a different species with the same palate:  he read a rat a writ.

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crows and countermeasures

with great appreciation to Sam Russell, who told me what to do; and Cornell University’s 1909 Circular No. 6, for explaining how.

I hustled to plant my colored corn at an auspicious time, just before a rainy spell around Memorial Day.  It sprouted right on schedule, but on the very day I admired rows of shoots gleaming in the morning sun, I came home in the evening to find fallen ranks of crow-plucked corn.  From fifteen long rows, I found less than fifteen survivors.  Livid and blue were the words of my mouth, yessir they were.

What to do?  I can’t just shoot the crows, tempted though I was.  For one thing, crows (and their Corvidae kin, bluejays and ravens) are smart and interesting birds.  For another, this is crow-rich territory:  if I shoot one crow, there will be two more applying for the vacancy.

Good advice from my dear friend Sam, and some facts pulled from Google’s stasis-box, convinced me to replant my corn…with a few changes, this time around.

I’ve planted twice as many rows:  32 rows in a 15 x 70 foot patch.

This is about as much square footage as I can cultivate with a hand-hoe before breakfast.

I’ve sowed more seeds per foot.

The sweet corn plate only drops seeds every three inches. The pea plate drops ’em every inch.  I used the pea plate this time.  “One for the blackbird, one for the crow, one for the cutworm, one to grow,” according to nursery-rhyme standards.

I’ve summoned the reserves.

My total force numbers two stationary and three mobile troops.

And I’ve booby-trapped the seed corn, based on a hundred-year-old circular from Cornell University’s Plant Physiology department.  It explained how to do what my dear friend Sam Russell told me his old-time farmers used to do years ago in Massachusetts:  coat the seeds with noxious-tasting tar.

Pine tar, something I keep on hand as conditioner for the horses’ hooves in dry years, is thicker than molasses, twice as sticky, and has a foul fume-y taste. I checked.

I did as the circular directed:  I poured water over my corn, then added a spoonful of pine tar, and stirred till “practically every grain is covered.”

Though the book called for 2 tablespoons tar per bushel, or 1 tablespoon per 10 quarts of seed, my scant 2 quarts of corn got a whole tablespoonful of tar, because I couldn’t get the tar back off the spoon once I had dipped it in the tar-can.

If “properly spread on a dry floor” the seeds would have dried less sticky, but I opted for the other method, and dusted the corn with wood ashes so it could be “used immediately without serious inconvenience.”  I do despise serious inconvenience.

I tested a few kernels in some stove ashes. They went in bright and sticky…

…and came out coated and ready to flow easily through the planter.

When I filled the planter’s hopper, I spread some treated corn at the edge of the patch.  According to Cornell, this invites the crows to catch on ahead of time that the corn tastes terrible.

Grey, gruesome, and guaranteed to deter.

Into the ground it went.  Now, after a day of soaking rain and three consecutive days of Juneglorious sun, the corn is once again at the vulnerable stage.

I don’t understand why crows think that withered kernel below the sprout is such a delicacy.  From this stage until the second leaf unfurls, cornlings are imperiled.

One of the survivors of the first Blitzcaw:

My garden should be under a sea of these half-foot juveniles…

…but alas, it is only abristle with little green stubs.

Painted Mountain corn is bred to be dry on the stalk at about 85 days, so I am optimistic this planting will mature before the worst of autumn frosts.

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near sights

Memorial Day weekend is traditional garden-making time in this family.

The horses’ winter paddock included the residues of last year’s corn patch.  Their generous leavings, plus a spreaderful of cow manure, got plowed under and then had a harrowing experience to make the ground ready for seeding this year.  My soil-science colleague has explained again and again how tilling interrupts the peaceful soil-dwelling fungi and their mycelium-making communities, so I feel mildly guilty about this degree of upset.  However, years of trial have taught me that baby corn plants need all the help they can get against stubborn smothering endemics like witchgrass and wild mustard.   By knocking back the early-growing weeds, plowing levels the field.

My ecologist-colleagues taught me that a cataclysmic environmental event—a flood, a landslide, any widespread and destructive turmoil—is called a tabula rasa, a blank slate.  What was, is no more…but the very emptiness of the scene  invites new patterns to emerge.

First week of June

Sometimes, the tabula rasa is imperfect.  Protected pockets or microregions, called refugia, are immensely reassuring:  though limited in scope, still they contain remnants of the familiar, and new life may unfold from them.

My perennial beds do not get violently cultivated, only edged and sometimes divided or increased.  They harbor bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, me, garter snakes, and dozens of plant varieties.

This spring has seen several ugly hailstorms around the region, but not (yet) at this farm.  We’re often directly under the edge of large dripping cloud masses, giving us those oddities, “sunshiny showers.”

“A sunshiny shower won’t last half an hour” according to folk weatherists.


Light rain


The beauty of the unusual light quality makes up for the inconvenience of interrupted work.  There is another reward, before sunset:

Hope the listers don’t raise my taxes—I haven’t found the pot o’ gold yet.


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On this, the first beautiful day after eons of rainy weather, when I should have been…

…mowing the yard, hanging the laundry, making the kids play outdoors…

…I did none of the above.  Instead I…

…hoed out the house, hired a temp to feed horses-cats-gerbil-and-fish, cleaned off my desk…

…and packed the kids into our escape pod.


Stardate: Subaru 2003. Fluids, check. Tire PSI, check. Funny muffler noise was negated by mechanic’s arc weld.

Three hundred and fifty miles, which is of course a mere nothing in astronomy, is quite a long enough piece of Childhood to infuse even the mellowest of kids with a good case of restless.  Imagine my delight, then, when no hell broke loose, no carsickness threatened, and no bladders syncopated the scheduled rest stops.  I would travel around the world with these three, yes I would.

Eleven, for now.

This one’s nine.

And this one is freshly seven.

Three notable things happened on this trip.

First, my eldest, who was supposed to be learning navigation there in the front passenger seat, instead occupied himself with counting the initial letters of any sign on the right side of the road along Route 4, from just outside Rutland clear down to Fort Ann.


Why?  Perhaps because he’s 11, getting prepared for obsessive behavior?  Anyway, when he was transcribing his hatch marks to numerals, I idly remarked that he could work through five steps of calculations to find the standard deviation of his dataset.

Did “deviation” catch his attention?  Possibly.  Whatever the reason, he industriously set to finding the average of his 26-number set.  When I explained he would then need to find the difference between each number and the mean, he balked–but only because he had so many data points.  Therefore he reinvented his game, spent the next 10 minutes counting occurrences of the numerals 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 (on righthand signs only), and began again on running the statistical operations:  find the mean, find the difference between the mean and each point, square the differences, and find the mean of those squares.  Unbelievable!  The boy attained Variance while traveling upwards of 65 mph!

I suggested he stop there and we’d save Standard Deviation (the square root of the variance) for when we had digital assistance.  Nope.  He wasn’t going along with that.  Let it be known that I got so interested in his analog delvings for the square root of 12.1, I failed to notice the low-fuel light on the dash until well below Albany.  How long had it been on?  Makes no difference–we coasted into a Sunoco station with fumes to spare.

ImageThat’s where the second notable thing happened.  The cashier asked, “Do you have a PriceChopper card?”  Well, yes, in fact I did.  And guess what?  The FuelAdvantEdge promotion accrued on my card was worth a 60-cent-per-gallon discount, and because I paid cash I got yet another nickel off each gallon.  Unbelievable again!  A fillup of nearly 14 gallons did not cost me $54.50 after all.

And then there was the third notable thing.  I handed off my camera to the back seat and invited the urchins there to take pictures of whatever they wished.  I present to you their photo-perspective of today, ranging from interests outside the car to interests within it.

Northbound traffic


Big buildings


Look at that color car.


Look there’s another one the same color.


Are we there yet?


Why can’t we stop at McDonald’s?


Mama, how does this camera…Oh.









Image Image

Seems like forever till they’ll be old enough to spell me at the wheel.

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lightness of being

With gratitude to Ellie Epp, who perceives things.

Cholangiocarcinoma:  that is to say, my father is no longer on earth.

Sometimes I have to work at being happy.  This morning a Facebook friend shared a link that helped:  http://hint.fm/wind/  Is that not the prettiest thing?

It inspired me to fly a kite today. I bought four kites, cheap drugstore ones, because my kids are on school break and require diversion.  I didn’t say anything to the kids when I set out to the hayfield this cloudy afternoon–I just put together one of those kites and went along up the hill.  I figured their curiosity would get the best of them sooner or later.

Sure enough, when the kids finally spied me way up at the top of the hill, they ran to get their own kite packages.  Down at the foot of the field they congregated and yammered like birds, arguing about how kites went together.  One by one they straggled across the acreage to me, bearing approximations of kites.  One by one I adjusted bits of plastic and bamboo and nylon, and explained to each kid the principles of loft, tension, bridle, and tails.

It wasn’t long before they had the knack:

I thought about the kite Dad helped me make for a school project one time.  That was a rarity, that he should stoop to the doings of a sixth grader, and I loved him for it.  He used a sheet of butcher’s paper, masking tape, some cotton cord, rags from my mother’s scrap bag, and a wooden yardstick sawn lengthwise into lightweight struts.  As he helped me put the kite pieces together, he taught me the principles of loft, tension, bridle, and tails.  I’m glad I paid attention.

I think about Dad a lot.

When my patience runs short. When I figure out a problem. When I watch my kids’ expressions.

I hope I paid enough attention.

At least I remembered how to fly a kite.

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stomping grounds

What with one thing and another, my kids and I spent this Thanksgiving in my childhood hometown in central Pennsylvania.  We took delight in a particularly fine Black Friday outing, soaking up sunshine and 60-degree temperatures: a far cry from our snowy home farm four degrees of latitude to the north.

This half-acre yard was my kingdom, growing up. It was where I imagined, played with neighbor kids, and incidentally learned how to run the lawn mower. The ash, elms, and black cherry trees that harbored swings and treehouse are gone and the stumps grassed over, but the long flat-topped ridge of Shade Mountain still defines the southern horizon.

The kids remembered I promised to take them prospecting for fossils. We already have found glacial concretions and panned for gold in Vermont, but when I was growing up I liked to look for ancient shellfish fossils in crumbly Pennsylvania shale deposits such as this one, the Spring Township shale pit a few miles from my parents' home.

The shale formations exposed here are leftover mud flats from the middle Paleozoic Era, perhaps 400 million years ago. Glaciers almost but not quite reached this far south--the nearest mapped glacial formations lie 30 miles northeast of here--so this rock still rests in the layers and bands of the original seafloor deposits.

It takes a sharp-eyed kid to spot the first fossils of the afternoon. Do you see them?

How about now? Those are brachiopod shells you're looking at, and not very fresh ones.

This impoundment of about 140 acres lies at the foot of the shale pit. More than twenty years ago, my father taught me how to tie hooks onto fishline, jig for bluegills and crappies, cast for largemouth bass, and row a boat on this little lake. I saw my first swans, Canada geese, and great blue herons here. Back in the Silurian and Devonian periods, though, this spot was completely underwater, still attached to Europe, and positioned somewhere around Earth's equator.

Not all the deposits here are ancient, though. These dimpled shards are from 20th- or 21st-century clay "pigeons", four-inch discs of unglazed pottery flung into the air for shotgun target practice. These could even be from me--years ago my father brought me here to learn to shoot his 12-gauge Ithaca Model 37, then my own Mossberg 20-gauge shotgun.

Most of the shale has weathered and crumbled to fine angular gravel, but this bit of ledge hasn't yet fallen apart. I was taken with the map-like appearance of lichens threading along each crack and fault in its surface.

The main attractions of the day are the fossil shells. I don't know what these brachiopods may have looked like in life, but to my eye their petrified disarray is beautiful.

This year's seedling shelters in ancient rock and draws nourishment from the mineral remains of long-dead creatures. Me, I draw comfort from contemplating the eternal cycles of life.

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Have I mentioned I’m training a saddle mare?  Probably not, because I’m on unfamiliar ground and I’ve been more than a bit superstitious about drawing attention to our work.  Pride goeth before, and all that.

I hate falling.  I’ve feared falling from a horse ever since my old Appaloosa gelding fell with me and rolled clear over me, because I figured then that I had used up what little horse-luck I had managed to accrue since the other time when a driving accident nearly killed me.  I hate falling, and I have hated the grim anticipation of falls that almost certainly lie in wait when a green trainer and a green horse commence their education.

Experiential education.  There’s nothing like it.

To summarize:  I bought a dark bay filly, a long yearling, back in October 2008.  Next I set myself a course of study:  I read books and watched videos and attended clinics and asked a thousand questions and put in hours and hours of work over the past three years, finding out through direct experience how to start a young horse under saddle.

We’re not doing badly, all things considered.  We’ve gone through desensitizing, round penning, in-hand work, longeing, harness-breaking, ground driving, stoneboat-pulling, saddle-fitting, shoeing, fly-spraying, vaccinating, and blood-drawing.  Consider, if you will, that this animal is now near her full growth, standing over 15 hands in her shoes and weighing in at a slick thousand pounds.  She doesn’t have to do a blessed thing if she doesn’t want to–it is up to me, as the opposable-thumbed portion of the team, to convince and cajole and reassure and sometimes bluff her into doing as I ask in a way that keeps us both safe.  I’ll gloss over those 34 months of highs and lows, trials and errors, anxiety and neigh-saying, by quoting one of my mentor-trainers:  “We make mistakes, the horses make mistakes. That’s why we call this training.  Mostly we survive, mostly they survive.”

Yesterday was our very first all-by-ourselves ride down the town road.  Unaccompanied and uneventfully, I brought her into the shed, tacked her up, and climbed on.  We sedately walked the 2/3 mile to my neighbor’s farm, visited a moment, and walked back home.  You must do your best to imagine the scope and depth of my euphoria–this kind is  indescribable.

Alas, all things seek balance.

On this evening’s ride I unilaterally decided to turn right instead of left at the foot of our drive.  Ebony appealed.  Firmly and calmly I denied her.  Politely but inexorably she refused to acknowledge my denial and in classic quarter horse fashion she tried a compromise:  she faced where I pointed her, but tentatively backed up in the direction of her choice.  She wasn’t flustered, nor was I; she was not being punishably stubborn and my temper was well in check.

But then she backed one step too far, and set her hindquarters against an unfortunately hot electric fence wire.  In less time than it takes to tell, she leapt forward with a unsittable writhing twist that spilled me to the road–shoulder to shoulder, you might say, judging from my dirty shirt and the scuffs in the loose gravel to one side of the traveled lane.

Again, I’ll summarize:  Ebony ran home, I picked myself up, I followed her and gathered her up, side-by-side we walked ourselves to consensus, and then under the supervision of a kindhearted neighbor (may his good fortune ever flourish) I remounted and we walked home together.

It’s an odd sort of relief, this first unscheduled landing.  It happened, I coped, and I moved on.  I’m not looking forward to the next spill, but I’m no longer burdened by dread.  Why do I feel like there’s a deeper lesson here?

She was named Ebony Diamond Star when I bought her. Sometimes I call her other things, but not when she's being good.

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