Sunday, February 14, 2016

Fred and Steinbeck's "Hour of the Pearl"

Sunday morning of a four-day weekend in February, it doesn’t get much better than this. All in the house are still asleep, except the animals and me. After waking, I make my usual rounds, but at a slower pace. As every morning, Fred, the cockatiel, is first. He wants his nightly cage cover removed and wants his morning seed treat. If I delay too long, Fred grows impatient and rather loud in his squawking. I view Fred as a gift from heaven: one summer day, while irrigating a pasture, a cockatiel flew out of the sky and landed on the end of my hose; I guess he was thirsty. He walked up my arm and that was it; Fred became an official resident of Mission Hill Farm. 

Fred doesn’t produce food, just noise. He is clever and can sense the most inopportune times to get into an argument with the image in his mirror, which hangs in the corner of his cage. Maybe it is an argument; maybe it is a screeching love song. Whatever it is, it seems to be triggered whenever we want to watch something on television. The more important the scene, the louder Fred squawks. Pseudo threats of "quiet" or "roast cockatiel for supper" are useless. Fred is from heaven and has ruled his kingdom for over a decade. He is also hooked on routine and considers it an insult when I do not pull up a chair, sit down, and converse for a while: a few whistles, a few pecks, and a few “pretty birds” and all are blessed to start the day.

Next up on the morning routine is letting in the cat, Boots Junior. After her nocturnal hunting, it is time for her to relax on the rocking chair by the fireplace. Boots Junior, a 15-year-old calico, lives to sleep by the fireplace. She gets up once in a while to go eat or drink, then goes back to her rocker and falls asleep once again like the cat in T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."

Next up is Marley, another 15-year-old cat who has outlived his nine lives by a factor of 10. Actually, Marley is a wild cat who adopted Mission Hill Farm as his official residence and anointed all humans as his minions. Our job is to let him out of the garage in the morning so he can begin his daytime hunting routine. He graciously shares the remains of his victims with us by placing them on the rug by the front door. He has the whole farm to leave his leftover rats, moles, gophers, and prized quail, but no; unfortunately, he is unselfish and must share his winnings with me. 

Marley is not just a proficient hunter; he is an apprentice locksmith too. We have a thumb grip front door latch, and Marley has learned to jump up and hang on the lever until it releases and then pull back until the door opens. He then wanders the house to find a suitable bed for a nap.

Next up on the morning routine is Anna, our LSG dog. Big, lovable Anna, I think she can read my thoughts. I have owned Labs, Border Collies, McNabs, but none show the intelligence of Anna. She seems to intuitively understand me.  Anna prefers to eat twice a day, so when she sees me taking Fred’s night cover off, she comes to the window and smiles reminding me not to forget that she is also waiting for breakfast. Anna is big enough to look me directly in the eyes when she stands on her back feet.  We had a bear problem recently. One day when I came home, Anna’s nose and muzzle looked like they had gone through a meat grinder. Her nose healed and I have not seen any bears since. 

With Fred, Boots Junior, Marley, and Anna content, I proceed to the garage to water and feed the rabbits.  I open the garage door to let in the early morning light. The sun has yet to crest Black Mountain with its silhouettes of Giant Sequoias.  According to Steinbeck, this is the “hour of the pearl,” a time before the day begins. It is a time when we can cheat time and steal a few moments before the day breaks. I understand the allure of the early morning, and I think the roosters do too. They proudly announce that the farm is opening for business. The donkeys have heard the bang of the garage door, and that can only mean their hay is coming soon. They join the barnyard chorus with brays that must be heard for miles. The sheep and goats begin to announce their impatience with their night's confinement. Before the suns crests Black Mountain, my daughter and I put on our wool beanies and jackets and gloves and head out into the early dawn in Grandma’s golf cart to feed the residents of Mission Hill.