One thing I know for sure: James Oliver never set out to become a farmer.
He may be an animal lover by nature. And he is blessed (or cursed) with a natural inclination to make anyone or any thing within his personal range as comfortable as possible.
He also finds it very difficult to say ‘No’ when his wife is pressing and persistent, which she may have been about acquiring backyard chickens. What could be more logical, after all, than an ongoing supply of fresh eggs for a B & B?
But he NEVER set out to become a farmer. Which makes it all the more entertaining to watch him every day, as he attempts to keep 5 extra females (Rhode Island Red hens, to be exact) satisfied with their lot in life.
The thing is, it’s he who has set the boundary impossibly high, through his own determined catering to these layabout ladies. They seem to be the first thing on his mind every morning: got to let the chickens out. So out he goes. He stops at the first station he’s created, in an effort at efficiency. The lid comes off the Rubbermaid, and on go the rubber boots. Up he treks to the gate, the one and only time this day when he will go through it unimpeded by the 5 cluckers. It closes behind him, and instinctively, he threads the latch shut against invading puppy dogs. Over to the hen house, he enters, and pulls carefully on the levered rope, which in turn pulls up the vertical trap door. And out march the 5 girls, lock step and in their pecking order.
His sigh at this point is an audible one. I fancy I can hear it from the kitchen. In he comes, muttering epithets under his breath: ‘damn chickens….stupid chickens….’ It’s hard to believe he really means it, however, because with his next breath, he wonders aloud at what I might have to include in what he calls their ‘first breakfast’. He knows that I will be preparing multitudes of fruit at this point, fashioning it into fruit cups or yogurt and fruit parfaits for our guests. What I’ve come to understand is that there had definitely better be leftovers for the little dears. Because they’ll expect it. In addition to the various other high protein grainy selections, available throughout the day, they will, in fact, expect it twice daily.
Oh, the lengths to which he’ll go. It isn’t just the food itself, it’s also about the delivery systems. I never thought of James as overly neat, but he’s truly struggled to grasp the low standard which hens will accept while eating their food. For example, if they have to stand in it while they eat it, that’s OK. And if nature calls, again while they’re eating, well, whatever. Just keep chowing down. He watched this for awhile (now you know something about the origin of ‘Stupid chickens…’) but finally, he couldn’t stand it. System after system had to be created so that the hens didn’t just ‘live’ in everything they tried to eat.
Buckets were purchased, appropriately sized drill bits rented, and holes that were just big enough to comfortably allow a head and neck to enter, but not get caught leaving, were made at just the right height. The buckets were filled then, with different types of grains, and water, and then hung from the ceiling of the hen house common area. Success! No more standing or pooping in their basic foods.
The fruits and veg that came twice daily posed a different problem. James had tried placing them on pieces of plywood, or the rubber lids of boxes. To no avail; those girls would crush together as they fought for the best position to explore and see what goodies had been brought this time. The standing and the pooping were rampant, not to mention the flies that began to infest the areas of the ground where they were fed. This called for guerilla tactics. I could see the wheels turning slowly in his head, as he imagined solutions to this one.
Then one day, he had it! Very ingenious. A length of wide PVC pipe was cut to a 3 foot length. But this time, instead of holes, nearly the entire upper surface of the pipe was removed, leaving a good sized opening that ran practically its length. Next, a pair of crossed one by fours, secured fairly close to the ground, became de facto legs for what really looked like a manger.
And, in fact, it was,. Now, when James arrives with the morning fruit salad, or the evening salad bar selection, it goes neatly into the trough, and the ladies peck away at it. No standing, no pooping. Genius.
Not a farmer, exactly, but there is little doubt that the ‘ladies’ know they have James on a short leash. Still, when was the last time you got anything in return from a pet, or a child, for that matter, besides love, of course? Reliable as the breeze off the bay, those 5 girls fork over at least one egg per day apiece. Sometimes more! Not a bad little arrangement, really.
On Love and Loss, and the Gifts that can’t be Taken
All of us have good times and bad, though we may try to hide the fact. It’s the same with families; sometimes we thrive, and sometimes we struggle. There are times, of course, when the struggles seem great and long. In desperation, we find ourselves beseeching the heavens for relief: then, it is up to us to recognize those much needed gifts when they come our way, even when they take forms we hadn’t dreamed of, and even when they lead ultimately to the mythical Rainbow Bridge.
Nearly 13 years ago, our family was going through such a time. Each of our 3 children felt they were sitting on the edge of a personal precipice. The issues they were dealing with were difficult and ongoing, so that they doubted their abilities to cope. It was a very trying time, and for us, as parents, so often we felt helpless. We needed to stay together, that was for sure. But we needed a little more cement than we currently had.
One thing that occurred to me then was that we had been pet free for several years. We had needed a break, as you so often do after long goodbyes to beloved animals. But now, I could see that we were ready to go back in. And so, one day in group discussion, I let my Gr. 5 class, a lively group of country living ten year olds, know that we were in the market for a kitten; did anyone know of any? A little girl named Victoria shot her hand in the air. “Mrs. Oliver,” she beseeched, “there are kittens living at a house in my neighborhood. There’s no mother there! You have to take some. The boys are mean!”
I assured Victoria that I was interested, and low and behold, a day or two later, her good hearted mother arrived after school with a box filled with adorable kittens. There were at least 6, as I remember, and most of them were gorgeously long haired and charming. But I had been clear in my wants: a male, short haired, marmalade colored.
There was one suitable candidate. And even though I could see that he lacked the more obvious charms of his siblings, he was very cute. I stuck with my original choice. I found a tiny basket and put cozy fabric into the bottom of it. I took my little candidate, and placed him in the basket, and then into a box. He began to mew in great distress.
While I was doing all of this, my student, her mother and the other kittens departed. We didn’t observe this parting, and I thought about it afterwards. How easily we sever these bonds, and never give it another thought. What is it like for these creatures, I wondered often, after the fact.
Still, we were ready to begin a new life, but not before we made a trip to the vet. There was no way that this little monkey would be bringing fleas with him, from his ‘motherless’ home.
The drive to the vet was not a peaceful one, I’m afraid. The poor little fellow was very distressed about this new turn of events. I felt from the get go that he had seen more than his fair share of unpredictable, frightening behavior; was this going to be more of the same? He mewed and mewed, in the loudest little voice, so much more than one would assume his little body could deliver. Nonetheless, we proceeded, and arrived at our destination. I left the tiny boy safely at the bottom of his box, while I went in for the quick purchase. I was fully prepared for the cacophony to continue on our ride home. I was delightfully surprised, then, to open the car door and hear a quiet little kitten. I peaked into his box, and there he was. Snuggled up in the softness, he was peacefully quiet, and I thought to myself, ‘You thought the worst was coming, and it didn’t. This is something new for you, and thank heaven, you’re still open to it.’
I can’t even describe, really, the looks and expressions of absolute delight that came when I introduced this tiny stranger to my 3 struggling kids. He charmed them instantly. And while they would all take turns playing with and loving him, it was the eldest who took the basket in her finger tips, fell instantly in love, and became the new mama to the kitten who would become our Alfredo.
Of course, a baby animal is all encompassing, and Alfredo was perfect for us. He was such an active little monkey, and was almost literally tireless in his play. But at night, he slept between James and I. And I have to say, a more adorable little face to gaze upon in the middle of the night, I cannot imagine. He was a sweet little one, and we were all very content.
That is why, of course, things could not ‘just be left as they were’. Something was still missing. This was news to me, I have to say. I was feeling quite perfectly contented, as I made my way home on a fabulous late spring day about 2 weeks later. I drove up to the top of our long mountain driveway, and noticed a little gang of 3 waiting there for me. James was about to head off to work, having just retrieved the boys from school. Mike was leaning against his bike, next to his dad’s car, and Tom was throwing his opinion in for good measure. ‘She’ll never let you do it,’ I heard him say to his brother. ‘I don’t think so either,’ added James, corroborating Tom’s thoughts. ‘What??’ I asked in exasperation. If there’s anything that can get me going, it’s people who think they can read my mind.
And that is when I noticed him. Carried close to Mike’s chest, in the hand that wasn’t guiding the bike, I could just make him out. A tiny but filthy black and white fur ball was mewing his opinion in a much smaller and higher voice than the one that came out of Alfredo. It was, indeed, another kitten. And whereas Alfredo in all his tiny-ness resembled a miniature Serengeti lion, this new kitten was nothing like that. He was a panda bear. The most miniscule panda bear you ever saw, but, oh my… I could feel my heart melting uncontrollably. For that little kitten, (and to this day, I feel like a betrayer saying so) was the cutest animal I had ever seen..oh, my.
‘Get him in the car,’ I heard myself saying. What the heck was I doing, and yet, what choice did I have? I was a puddle. ‘His name is Lucky!’ I heard Mike yelling through the open window, and I thought, ‘Yep. Probably right.’ And off we sped, back to the same parking lot, the same vet office, to get the same flea treatment, and a check up. We came out and I put the drops on the back of Lucky’s neck, and then I stared into his truly magical eyes. Not for the last time.
This moment was one we would often look back upon. For Lucky was to become not only a welcome brother to Alfredo, but one of the greatest gifts our family ever received. I have to tell you, however, that Lucky did not come gentle into our family. Here is his story.
James and the boys were driving home from school in the usual manner, coming along the lower mountain road and about to make their turn up, when they could see an oncoming vehicle. When it was fairly close to them, they saw to their horror that a small object was thrown from the open window. According to James, it rolled in the dust and came to a stop at the side of the road. Now, both James and Mike saw this clearly, and they were up front. James is definitely not one given to elaborating the facts or the small details. When he tells me something, I believe it. And so, I believed this. They pulled over and got out. Upon investigation, they found a small, dusty object – a living one! It was a tiny kitten, still alive, and miraculously unharmed, at least from what their eyes could determine.
But here is the rather shocking part of the story. They didn’t bring the kitten home! No. James assured Mike that someone in the adjacent mobile home park would surely fall for a tiny kitten, and take it in. They left it, safely away from the road, and up they came. James got ready for work, and Mike got straight on his bike (I hope I hear applause). Down he came and found the kitten just where they had left it. Unable to ride and carry the kitten at the same time, he snuggled Lucky into his chest and pushed his bike up the hill. And that is where I found them.
I wish this story had an ultimate happy ending, and actually, I guess maybe it does, albeit on another plane from ours entirely. The fact is that we had 12 very happy years with both of these guys. And when James and I moved from the mainland to the Island in 2012, they both came along with us. Here, they settled into what I believe were spectacularly happy years in their lives. Lucky especially was so in tune with nature and just adored the gardens. He spent as much time loving them and patrolling them as he possibly could, and at night, especially this past year, I would find him endlessly star gazing, and I would join him. Alfredo adapted readily and also really enjoyed the warm dry summers and cozy winters. We always felt that they completed our place here, and were charming mascots for our guests. You’ll be glad to hear that, in the past couple of years especially, Alfredo really rose to the occasion, being both a mascot and an ambassador for our B & B. He seemed really in tune with us, and always caught the vibe when new folks were coming. He prided himself on greeting them, and was really a charming guy, but never intrusive. Our guests loved him, as their children adored Lucky.
There is never a good time to lose your pets, and of course, we had hoped for several more years with them, but it was not to be. Too soon, they were taken from us. Lucky sadly passed away while we were far from home this late autumn. Of course, this was traumatizing and confusing for his brother, Alfredo. Sadly, despite his athleticism, and general good health, he passed away this week, from an undetected heart ailment.
And that brings us to the rainbow bridge.
God knows it’s a heartache for us to lose these beloved family members. Time will surely help to ease this, as well as all of our good memories of them. And I have to say that when we returned home yesterday, despite the shock of Alfredo’s loss, I did feel moments of absolute peace. They were together again. Each had crossed the bridge.
And so, despite it all, I will forever be grateful for that particular, long ago, answered prayer.
Here at Seasons Above the Bay, we’ve always been for the birds. Without really acknowledging it, it seems to have been one of our themes from the beginning. For one thing, we’ve been surrounded by birdsong from the day we stepped into our garden, just 2 years ago.
Oh, how it struck me then! Memory took me back to childhood, and there I was, standing in a long ago garden. That whole first summer, I spent watching. And listening. I was mesmerized by the feeling that I’d been taken backwards in time.
The next summer, we became acutely aware of a different sound. A primordial sound, if you’ve never heard it. It was the sound of herons, nesting safely in a preserve about 100 meters away from our property. We never saw the nestlings, but the parents of those little critters were run ragged, from morning til night. At first, we were rather startled by the sight of what appeared to be swooping teradactyls, relentlessly fetching for their clacking offspring. We’ve learned that this goes on for months. Those baby herons have a good thing going, and they take every advantage of it.
What we didn’t expect was a surprise visit. I mean, we’re good with drop ins. Visitors seem to reach us at all hours. But when one of them casually asked, ‘Why do you have a heron in your front yard?’, I admit it: I was startled. Looking outside, I saw one of my neighbors signalling me wildly. ‘You’ve got a heron in your front yard,’ she pronounced as I peeked my head out the door.
The strange thing was that we realized we’d been misleading these herons all along. Didn’t we have a lovely effigy, in stained glass, just where that heron could spot it? Didn’t we have heron art, clearly visible from the front room window? All of this flashed through my mind as I went in search of the heron.
And there he was, lurking in the bushes, attempting invisibility. Poor fellow, he was clearly out of his depth, not to mention his nest. From his scuttling about, I could see that he was uninjured. What were we to do?
I tracked him for a bit, and noted the critical expression on his face, as he observed the decor, visible from the bedroom window, as he peered into our most exclusive suite. ‘Like you could do better,’ I muttered, self-consciously, as I watched him move away.
From there, Harry (as I suddenly realized I had named him) was off. He was going to do a full trek of the property, and inevitably, that meant he would encounter cats. Two cats. The chase was on.
Returning to the house momentarily, I knew the meeting of species had occurred when the most god-awful caterwauling rent the air. Alfredo, our orange, pint sized mighty mouser had crossed Harry’s path and was delighted with what he saw. Harry, on the other hand, saw an opportunity to begin kicking furry butt, and he set about it. There was something just and right about the result: one cat down.
It was then that we clearly knew we needed help. A call to our next door neighbors, more than checked out in the ways of both herons and injured or displaced wildlife, was made. I kept tracking Harry, and Harry kept trekking the property.
Meanwhile, keeping one eye on Harry, I couldn’t help but notice the madcap scene of our neighbors, creeping along the fenceline while brandishing flowing sheets in outstretched arms. Looking, as they did, more like errant trick or treaters than bird rescuers, I shook my head at the possibilities. I’d seen Harry’s work…. Poor Harry. Could this end well?
Meanwhile, Lucky, our second cat, having witnessed his brother’s inglorious and atypical trouncing, watched in dumbstruck terror as suddenly, Harry began approaching him from what he’d assumed was a well placed hiding spot. Not so much. Do you have any idea how well herons can see? I felt like a powerless mother, desperately egging on a hopelessly plump 5 year old in a Sports Day footrace, already lost. ‘For god’s sake, Lucky, RUN!!’ I shrieked from the sidelines. Lucky, meanwhile, eyes the size of saucers and a look of abject terror freezing his features, could do nothing to save himself. I noted, proudly, that at the very last second, he actually covered his eyes…….
It was, I admit, a collective breath that was caught, as Lucky lived to see another day. Choosing to pass him by, Harry was off once more. Now to the rose garden, over to the hedge, he weaved and dodged to his heart’s delight. There wasn’t a square inch of the property he didn’t cover, in his bid for freedom. By this time, five grown adults were scrambling to bring this caper to a good end. With sheets outstretched, many an attempt was made to safely cover little Harry’s head, for though he appeared fully grown, it was then we really understood the tenderness of his age. Poor Harry. Though he managed to resist our efforts, try as he might, his gallumphing leaps, and frenetic flapping were all in vain. No flight was achieved. And in the end, behind a hedging cedar, it all ceased as it had begun. Darkness had brought peace to Harry.
Did you know that all birds will stop struggling if their heads are concealed? The darkness seems to end the panic and they relax and allow themselves to be rescued. Harry went gently, into that good night.
After a series of phone calls, arrangements were made to transport Harry to nearby Crofton. Good neighbor, Kerrie, did the driving. From there, Harry received his first boat ride over to Salt Spring Island, where a peaceful rescue and recovery process could begin. Not a bad end for a curious heron.
One thing we’ve discovered, since moving to Vancouver Island, and in particular, the Cowichan Valley, is that nearly every family or business has a beloved pet or two, revered like children, and well known to the broader community. I don’t walk into my physiotherapist’s office without being hugged, patted, and generally assailed by Molly, her darling dog.
Everyone has stories about their critters and nearly every friend and page on Facebook keeps us up to date on these.
Here, at Seasons Above the Bay, our guests have been quite well entertained by the antics of Lucky, the wonder cat. Lucky was born nearly 11 years ago, and from his earliest days, he’s been a model of patience and lovability. He is a clown, with our guests, particularly during the good weather, when everyone is dining outside, on the patio.
He loves nothing more than to lie flat on his back, his 4 paws reaching for the sky while he stares at you, upside down and backwards. Like most dogs, he is a total sucker for a belly rub. I say ‘dogs’, because we have long realized that Lucky is our ‘dog-cat’, while his brother, Alfredo, is pure feline.
Lucky has an inborn instinct to look after others, and has always been particularly good with little kids. He is to this day. And so, it came as a pretty big shock this week to discover that Lucky has developed very serious diabetes.
Out of the blue, we realized that he was losing a great deal of weight. We told ourselves that it was because we had switched up his cat food to a ‘senior cat’ type, which he obviously was not loving. But then, his water dish began to be frequently empty. And though his spirits still seemed good, we realized that we needed to get some answers.
We were pretty shocked and horrified; Lucky requires 2 injections of insulin a day, and, of course, a completely different diet.
We’ve had a few days to get over the shock, and begin to figure this thing out. Jim and I work as a team, trying to keep both kitties separated, while we feed Lucky his new food, obviously abhorrent to him, while simultaneously jabbing him with a needle. Meanwhile, Alfredo is desperate to sort out what the heck is wrong with everybody, and when and what it is safe for him to eat. But we’re getting there. We’ll figure it out.
Meanwhile, it’s hard not to be super reflective about just how much Lucky means to us; how really important he is in our lives. Lucky’s peaceful, generous nature has provided us with so much comfort and assurance over such a long period of time. We each expect a personal visit and serious schmooze with him, at least twice a day.
There will be head butting, smooching of foreheads and hugs. He’s great at all of those things.
We can’t help but think, now, that time is precious for all of us. Love is nothing to be taken for granted. It’s a gift, whenever and from wherever it comes. So for us, this week, the gift has been just to be reminded of that.
And, hopefully, lots more years of antics and love among the ‘furry set’.