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Everything has its place,
everything has its time

Mike Hillman

(Dec, 2010) Winter approaches quickly, and with it, a sense of urgency descends upon all living things in the country. The first frost of the season breaks the bonds that held leaves fast since they sprouted to life in the first warm days of the now-distant spring.

As the sun rises, the frost recedes, and leaves that normally fall without notice or sound fall at a rate that sounds like a gentle shower on a mid-summer’s day. Trees that were full of life the evening before soon stand denuded, mere skeletons of their former selves. The bird nests that were once invisible in the leaves now dot every tree. In the spring, when the year was young, these nests were the center of life; now they rest empty. The lucky ones that were built more sturdily will house another brood next year, but most will soon come crashing to the ground, where they will only be marveled at by those who stumble upon them.

In the gardens, the last of the late-blooming plants open their bounty to nourish the birds, bees and butterflies migrating south. A solitary hummingbird seeks out the red flowers of the Ivy Leaf Geranium, and once satisfied, continues on its way; so too do the monarchs, many of which only recently hatched. Sadly, the frost takes its toll on those monarch caterpillars who have yet to burst from their chrysalis, prematurely ending the transformation that entrances all with a youthful nature. The once busy bee now moves slowly as it makes its way between the flowers that remain, paying little heed to anything around it. Soon bees will be as rare in the garden as the leaves on the trees.

The migratory songbirds have all departed, leaving behind only those that have adapted to our harsh winter. The first frost alerts gardeners that it is time to place the bird feeders and water pools in sheltered areas for their feathered companions to safely find nourishment, during even the harshest of winter’s gales.

The small potted-plants are lucky to have found favor with the gardener, as their placement in the house is a “production of the highest magnitude.” Every plant has its proper place; the door to the house is no sooner closed than it is opened again as another round of plants enters their indoor winter sanctuary. Dogs who faithfully followed their owners all summer soon tire of drill and seek out a warm spot in the sun, but still keep a watchful eye on events lest their presence be called upon.

In the garden, deadheading of plants begins in earnest. The knowledgeable gardener does not surrender to the pressure of creating a picture perfect garden by cutting off flowers, but rather allows the seed heads to remain, knowing the vital role they play in feeding the feathered residents of the garden. But with seed heads now empty, the garden must be cleaned and made ready for the next year – the last act of this year’s garden play and the first act of the year to come.

While diligent in the deadheading, the gardener takes only what is necessary, leaving as much cover as he can. The experienced gardener knows full well that the stalks of dead plants still serve a purpose, offering shelter for those who make a living off the ground. With each clip of the gardener’s shears, the sparrows voice their objections as the brambles and stalks have been their home since birth, and they fear losing it in the winter. Eventually the sparrows claim victory and the gardener retreats, wishing to have cut more, but knowing full well that the needs of his feathered companions must come first.

The “trimmed” garden once again attracts the attention of the house cats. Shorn of the camouflage that tall plants gave them, the plethora of moles that have made their home amongst the roots fall easy prey to cats that are eager to hunt, but unwilling to stray far least they miss an opportunity to rush through an open door to the warmth that awaits them on the other side.

With the first bitter cold comes the demand for outdoor animals to seek and stockpile food for the winter. Feeding the horses in the stable provides sufficient bounty for all. Grabbing mouthfuls of feed, the horses glance about, casting a weary eye for predators as nature has programmed them to do. In doing so, the horses shower the ground with grain.

The sparrows and finches are the primary beneficiaries of the horses’ morning feedings. In the early days of winter, spilled grain remains on the floor after the birds have had their fill. But as winter grows in age and anger, larger numbers of birds will come swooping in on this bounty, and eventually, crowd the entire floor so that no kernel goes unclaimed.

The evening feeding comes too late for the birds who have settled into their shelter of choice. The horses’ spilled grain now feeds the field mice that find safety in the night and eagerly await the sound of the horses’ hooves and the falling grain that will undoubtedly follow. As soon as the first bits of grain hit the ground, little brown heads pop out between the boards that make up the dividers between the stalls. The mice glance cautiously about to make sure all is clear, then dart out for the nearest piece of grain before dashing back to their refuge.

The smarter mice vie for positions at the feet of the younger horses who spill their grain more readily. Older horses, more settled in their ways, savor each kernel and rarely let any grain slip through their age-old lips.

Like the birds in the deepest part of winter, the mice make quick work of the spilled grain. The horses pay no attention to the scurrying mice around their feet. Horses that feel shortchanged by their evening servings join the mice in scavenging the spilled grain. The mice pay no heed to the giant heads that vacuum the floor around them; since they have never been hunted by horses, the mice have no fear of them. Instead, they boldly race the horse for the last bits of fallen grain.

While no mercy is shown to mice that try to take up residence in the house, those who reside in the barn are often the beneficiaries of the “Under Dog” label. A mouse found cornered by a dog is given the opportunity to escape, much to the disgust of its canine pursuer. Setting the mouse free allows the hunt to start all over again.

While this may sound cruel to some, one soon learns that it is the mouse that has the upper hand. Day after day, week after week, the mouse skillfully eludes the dog, disappearing into cracks and crevasses often invisible to the human eye. The mouse skillfully climbs a sheer wall and disappears into a tiny hole just as easily as a person walks across a floor and opens a door.

Oh, the lucky barn mouse that calls a cat-free barn home. When the lights go out for the final time, the barn floor becomes its domain, and is picked clean by the following morning. At the dawn of the new day the mouse retreats to the safety and warmth of its nest where it awaits the descent of the sun and the battle for life to begin once again.

Such is the way of life in the country.

Read other stories by Michael Hillman