Cappers Farmer Blogs >

Writing with a Sense of Place

A Bear and a Watermelon

Kathryn Randall

When you hear the word bear, what image comes to mind for you? A favorite threadbare teddy bear, cuddled in the arms of a young child before bed? Christopher Robin, deep in the Hundred Acre Wood, playing with his friends Eeyore, Kanga, Roo and most of all, Winnie the Pooh? Or do you see the Tinman, Scarecrow and Dorothy, with terror on their faces, walking through the woods... lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

Rural life in Pennsylvania means living with the Pennsylvania black bear. Ursus americanus. Ursus is Latin for bear. It can also mean a type of Icelandic vodka or Romanian beer, either of which I might have enjoyed relaxing with after encountering a bear on the farm.

Bears like our farm, even though we take all the necessary precautions. We store our bird seed and dog food in metal containers, clean our grill after each use, and take out our garbage on the day it is picked up. But when you live on a farm, be it a small one, certain features of it will attract bears. Like a corn field. Or misplaced watermelon rind. It can't be helped.

Several years ago, my youngest daughter and I sat on our porch on a warm summer night, treating ourselves to large slices of a fat, juicy watermelon. It was deliciously sweet, and we engaged in our usual seed spitting contest off the porch. Because we were tired, and lazy, we left the rind by the maple tree near the porch, to take to the compost bin later.

We turned on a movie, living room windows open to allow in the breeze, and forgot about our abandoned rind. Soon, we heard a sound outside the window... a deep harrumphing and grunting. We looked at each other and whispered, "Bear!"

The living room is on the opposite side of the house from the kitchen porch and the discarded rind. As we sat quietly, the grunting sound disappeared, to be followed by a commotion on the porch. A clanging and banging, heavy walking, heavy panting, heavy harrumphing. Then all was quiet.

My daughter and I sat wide-eyed, unmoving, waiting. Soon the quiet and our curiosity got the best of us. We had to look outside!

We crept into the kitchen and peered out the kitchen door window. Our porch furniture had been turned topsy-turvy. But there was no bear on the porch.

I flipped on the floodlight on the post behind the house and opened the door a crack. Just then our neighbor came around the bend in the road in his pick-up truck. We saw him slow down and stop before he came to our driveway.

In the middle of the road, illuminated by his truck headlights, sat a massive black bear, our watermelon remnants surrounding him as he enjoyed a juicy late-night meal!

bear eats trash

Photo by Getty Images/AwakenedEye.

Snakes on a Farm

Kathryn RandallEvery spring, as I walk through the woods and meadow of our farm, I think about the approaching arrival of snakes. Their metabolism rises during the warm weather of spring after the long winter months, and soon they will make their appearance. And every spring, I remember all the amusing stories we have about the snakes on our farm.

Our first farm truck had a cap that attached to the back. We took the cap off one winter to haul wood. We placed it flat on the ground, open side down, in a grassy area near the barn. In early summer, we finally decided we needed to put the cap back on the truck. My husband grabbed one side and I grabbed the other to lift it up. Do you remember the scene from the Indiana Jones movie where a young Indie falls into a train car full of snakes? The bed of snakes under our truck cap looked similar.

Hundreds of snakes of various sizes and species were piled together, basking in the warmth and humidity created by the cap. Needless to say, I have never jumped so high, screamed so loud, and run so fast as I did at that exact moment. Within minutes, all the snakes were gone.

My husband and I were in awe-where could they have gone so fast? There wasn't a snake in sight. But we did see a head or two in the cracks between the stones in the barn foundation. It amazed us how fast they disappeared. And how fast I could run!

Don't get me wrong. We appreciate the presence of snakes on our farm. They help to keep the rodent population under control. I don't mind snakes when I can see them and know where they are going. But sometimes, we find them in unexpected places.

One day my husband, busy mucking out the sheep pen, got annoyed with the cord from the light switch overhead dangling onto his head. Without looking, he swatted at it to try to throw it up over the light. His hand hit something wet and fat.

Instead of swiping at the light cord, he swatted a long black snake dangling from the cord over his head. Not only that, but the snake decided at that moment to regurgitate its meal. A moist pile, containing little fragments of bone, plopped onto his shoulder.

Fortunately, despite having an 1880 foundation with plenty of entryways, we have never found a snake in the house. One summer day, however, we came home from town one day to find a snake on the house, attempting to consume a baby bird from a nest located on the electrical box near the roof. We think it climbed up the maple tree by the house, out onto a branch and onto the box. We got it down with a long handle for our shovel.

Once it hit the ground, it dropped the bird, and slithered away... right under the kitchen porch steps. Hmmmm. Needless to say, I was on the look-out for the next few days for a snake IN the house.

I woke up a couple of days later, and while making coffee, I saw something small and black curling out from under the rug under our shoe rack near the door. Oh, no, a baby snake in the house! I called my husband, in a panic, exclaiming that our house was now infested with snakes and what were we going to do! Since it was a very small snake, he advised me to open the door, get the dust pan and broom and sweep it out the kitchen door.

The snake, small and so very still, did not move as I crept to the kitchen door and opened it slowly. It didn't move even as I approached with the tools for its removal. That's amazing, I thought, thinking of how fast the snakes had disappeared from under the truck cap years ago. As I got closer to the baby snake, I realized I was mistaken. It wasn't a snake, but a black shoelace!

Snakes on the farm certainly do provide us with some amusing tales to tell!

snake on farm
Photo by Getty Images/tzahiV.

Maple Syrup Memories

Kathryn RandallWhen we first bought our small farm in 1985, we were delighted to find a maple stand on the property. The second spring we made our first batch of maple syrup. Recently, I sat down to record my memories of those wonderful days boiling sap in our homemade evaporator.

The cold hits my face as the kitchen door closes behind me. It is four a.m. in a frozen world. Brittle, crisp air seeps into my insulated overalls, under my wool hat, creeping into my gloves, flowing into my boots, seeking out my toes.

Guided only by moonlight, I make my way to the tractor in the garage. Snow crunches under my feet. The heavy fabric of my pant legs makes a loud sound in the cold air. The rhythmic noise, soothing and invigorating at the same time, is the sound I hear every morning in early spring, when the sap is flowing.

Our rusty tractor, worn out from years of work, sits in the barn, cold and brittle like the world. I plop down on the seat and turn the key in the ignition. The tractor sputters in the frozen air. We are alike, this old machine and I, both sputtering and struggling to get moving.

maple syrup

The tractor engine gives a roar, black exhaust swirls around me, smelling of fuel and dirt. I pull the tractor out of the garage, attach the garden wagon to the back and turn it towards the large garbage cans sitting near the driveway. The plastic cans make a cracking sound with each movement as I load two into the wagon. They fill the wagon, pushing against its sides, tightly wedged. I am ready to collect.

I drive along the driveway behind the house. Looking up, I see the upstairs windows, covered tightly with insulated curtains. Our old farmhouse, built in 1880, has more openings than just doors and windows. Drafty cracks between the window panes, doors that don't meet the floor, small openings between the basement and the outside, all let in the cold.

The wood stove in the living room heats the house in zones downstairs, with the warmest nearest to the stove, the coldest in the kitchen. The heat rises up the staircase from the living room, and at night, if the bedroom door is open, it can bring you leaping from your bed in a sweat. I picture my daughters, their doors closed, blankets under their chins, sleeping. It comforts me to know they are asleep in the warm house.

I shift the throttle, turning the tractor towards the barn which sits up on the hill, past the garden and the old brick springhouse. We move through the fluffy snow with ease, wagon bouncing behind, garbage cans bumping each other.

From the barn the old trail branches off to the right. I reach my destination-a line of maple trees between the trail and the field. I turn the tractor close to the trees as the cold overwhelms me. Hot coffee and a chair beside the wood stove sound inviting. 

Jumping off the tractor, I crunch through the field to the first tree. Two old metal taps protrude from the tree three feet above the ground on opposite sides. How many trees have these taps known?  We bought them from a retired farmer who boiled syrup every season for decades. It is an honor to use them.

A plastic gallon milk jug hangs from each tap by a hole cut in the handle. The clear sap fills the jugs halfway. A good run, I think, bracing myself for an hour collecting in the cold. Two jugs in hand, I trudge back to the wagon, dumping their contents into the garbage cans. I return the empties to the taps and collect two more. One hundred more left. It is hard work, but it fulfills a fundamental need in me to be a part of the natural world of the land on which I live.

Later, I will sit by the boiling sap, stoking the fire beneath it while looking through the vapors at my family nearby. We sip hot chocolate while we talk about things, important and trivial, as we wait for the beautiful amber color that signifies the finished syrup. Life is magnificent.

maple syrup

We made maple syrup for ten years, creating some of the best memories of my life.

Since then, our daughters have grown and moved on to non-farm lives and families of their own. Recently, in our barn, I found the poem they wrote back in the early 1990s and wood-burned onto an old board that hung above our homemade evaporator.

"Fire burn and cauldron bubble,
Making syrup is no trouble.
Real good syrup is made from sap,
When you use the Randall evap."

I emailed both of them immediately. Did they remember the poem? Could they still recite it all these years and events of their lives later?

Without hesitation, they both did.

All photos property of Kathryn Randall.