Vinegar Hollow: 2019 (mist) ends and 2020 (sun) begins!

I am looking to the north, but the view is to the south end of Vinegar Hollow I favor photos without people, because there are so many of us, but my husband said that we need scale and human interest. Photo credit courtesy of David Fernandez.

Once again I am here for my year’s end reset. The trip from Ithaca is long, and we arrived in the dark. The gutters gurgled gently in the night, so it was not unexpected to see an overcast sky in the morning, but there was an ocean of mist filling the entire hollow.

Another view from Stark’s Ridge to the south end of the hollow.

The mist looked gentle and soft, like a soothing gauze bandage over the landscape and its inhabitants. It was peaceful. I wondered whether I would want to see the sun again. Luckily the sun pays no attention to silly thoughts. As we walked, I marveled how the hollow always offers me surprises after all these many years. Sometimes I go looking for stories, sometimes they just find me, and sometimes they are the latest chapter in a long history.

Rock cairn, a haven for mosses and lichens, on the top of Stark’s Ridge looking south. Photo courtesy of David Fernandez.

A misty, warm morning is the perfect time to focus on mosses and lichens. They appreciate moisture, so having absorbed the overnight rain and morning mist and expanded in the warmer than usual temperatures, they were in glorious condition on the morning of December 29. My husband says that my current interest in mosses and lichens makes it even harder to walk with me. I tend to creep, slowly. The stories of plants are harder to dramatize but just their appearance offers food for thought.

Fallen log covered in lichens.
Cushion moss flourishing in crevice of lichen-encrusted rock.
A community of mosses: sphagnum and feather moss.

The next day was gloriously sunny. I checked in on Isabella, whom we met on our last visit. She was born in September and orphaned in early November when her mother, an apparently healthy 1500 pound plus cow, suddenly dropped dead. Mike thinks that either it was an aneurysm or a case of choking on an apple. (To check whether the cause of death is an aneurysm I learned that one sticks a knife in the body above the diaphragm and watches for a copious volume of blood.) Ever since, he has been bottle-feeding Isabella. She has to be separated from the herd because he can’t go chasing all over the farm with a bottle twice a day. She was lonely until Mike got a new young bull, whom I am calling temporarily Young Bull With No Name. He is a little small and shy. Apparently Young Bull’s previous owner did not socialize him with other cows or people. Mike says that when a stranger approaches, he lifts his head in a kind of fear-and-flight response, which makes Mike uneasy. One of Mike’s grandsons names Mike’s bulls, but he has said that he needs more time to think about a good name. Sally, Mike’s wife, named Isabella.

Isabella slurps milk from the bottle in just a few seconds. Then she gets grain.

Isabella and Young Bull With No Name have become inseparable. They make a stunning pair. Isabella is Angus and Young Bull is a Simmental. Their hides are thick and furry at this time of year. They graze side by side–and play together!

‘Ferdinand’ on the left and Isabella on the right.

When I was walking down from Stark’s Ridge later in the day, I saw two black shapes flying the length of the barn meadow. I realized it was them, hooves and tails aloft, side by side, flinging themselves into a race back and forth. When I reported this to Mike, he laughed but shook his head and said seriously, “He has to grow up. He thinks he’s still a calf.” Maybe Young Bull With No Name should be called Ferdinand I thought, drawing a comparison with the hero of Munro Leaf’s The Story of Ferdinand, a now-famous children’s story published in 1936, about a young bull who won’t fight, preferring to smell flowers and lounge about. My husband reminded me that Ferdinand and Isabella were the monarchs of Spain who financed Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the New World.

And then there is the story of Roy and Big Red, man and cat, great friends now separated. Roy, 95, the oldest inhabitant of the hollow, collapsed in December and finally agreed to go live with his daughter in Roanoke. He has been living alone for years in a trailer on his tidy little farm next to ours in the hollow. After a lifetime of constant physical work, he had to rest, his body too worn out to do labor of any kind. Roy says that he could not have lived so long alone without the TV (his was so old and tiny its screen was practically invisible by modern standards, but at least there were voices and words coming out of it) and his cat.

View of the Big Meadow and its sinkholes with Roy’s farm tucked away top left.

Big Red is a handsome, slightly portly butterscotch cat, who turned up in the hollow as a stray kitten eleven or so years ago. He roams freely, clever enough to escape coyotes and other predators, but also spent hours on Roy’s lap each day and slept nestled against his back every night. Roy positively beamed with admiration and love for Big Red whenever he looked at him. His greatest fear was leaving Big Red without a home.

A closer view of Roy’s trailer and tidy farm seen from Stark’s Ridge.

Roanoake was not an option, so Big Red is back up here at our farm where he started out, and Mike is feeding him morning and night. Big Red won’t eat with the other barn cats, so Mike has to feed him separately. Big Red had a huge fight with the current tom cat in the barn and beat him up badly, without ruffling a hair of his own perfect coat it seems. Big Red sleeps in the barn now. Last night was cold and so blustery even the cows were skittering away from the noisy gusts of wind. Big Red came to the sliding glass door of the cottage where we stay and stared at me intently. I did go out and converse with him and stroke his fur–he knows me as he has sat in my lap for hours at Roy’s–but I couldn’t let him in because of our cat, Rex Fernandez, who looks exactly like Big Red, but is only 6 pounds, 4 ounces. Despite his small size and health issues Rex is fiercely territorial. Big Red and Rex stared at each other through the glass for several hours. Unhappy with the situation I went to bed early even though it was New Year’s Eve. When I woke up, Big Red was still there staring through the sliding glass door. I made a cup of coffee and took a blanket out to visit with him. He purred and purred, sniffing my coffee intently. Roy relished his three cups a day. I just called Roy and he said that he was happy living with his daughter. We didn’t mention Big Red.

Big Red to the left and Rex Fernandez to the right. Rex F. may look big here but he is tiny.

It is hard for me to see Roy and Big Red separated. They both arrived as “strays.” Roy was brought here as a foundling soon after birth. He did farm chores for his adoptive parents, all the while working as a boy at a tanning factory stoking huge vats of boiling tannin. It was nightmarish he said–the fires were never let to go out. He walked eight miles each way over hill and through forest to get to the tannery. On one trip in the dark at night he was blinded in one eye by a bramble. Hard times, a wife, two children, a divorce, more hard times, then not so hard times–he lived on and became one of the most genial, gracious, and sweet-tempered of men. He told me he remembered the day I was born. He said, “Jack came home and said you were here.” So, we have been friends a long time.

I don’t know how the story will end for Big Red. He is a people cat. Mike comes up to the barn morning and evening, and even more times as farm chores demand. We’ve decided that Big Red can stay on very cold nights in the old house, which is heated now. But there is no permanent human in residence. Big Red may go off looking for a new owner or the memory of Roy may keep him anchored in the hollow. Though lives and relationships seem to dissolve like the mist, there are durable remains of our passage. Ferdinand and Isabella’s hooves pounding the barn meadow, and Roy and Big Red’s tracks criss-crossing the hollow have marked the landscape forever. There’s a huge slab of sedimentary rock with dinosaur footprints on Stark’s Ridge, but that’s another story.

Lichens and mullein nestled at the base of a locust tree on the Hill With No Name (which is between the Pine Tree Hill and Stark’s Ridge).

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