Home in the hills 

Stolen eggs, pillaged gardens and something nasty killing all the chickens. Living off the land ain’t easy, but Andy Smetanka embraces his family’s role as caretakers of Missoula’s historic Moon-Randolph Homestead.

It’s a little-known fact about magpies that they steal clothespins. Normally they stick to collecting useless shiny things like foil, but something about the utilitarian simplicity of the clothespin must appeal to them, too. I’m pretty sure it’s magpies running off with the clothespins. We went from having the traditional country-clothesline bleach bottle full of them to having to scrounge around our junk drawers and the little bowls and dishes we keep around to collect things that fall out of wallets and diaper bags. Now we just throw wet laundry over the line and hope the wind doesn’t pick up.

It’s possible that I absentmindedly pocketed some of the clothespins myself, but too many have gone missing for me to be the sole culprit. So that’s why I’m holding the magpies responsible. They’re certainly not shy about announcing themselves near the clothesline. In May a magpie woke us up every day at 4 o’clock in the morning.

They can speak in several voices. One call sounds like a crying child—something that never fails to chill my blood when I’m working in the garden—but for early morning serenades in the locust tree that holds up one end of the clothesline, it’s a raspy croak, surprisingly loud, and right outside our bedroom window. Every morning in May I ran outside and swore at it, and every time it flew away cackling, only to come back at 4 the next morning. 3:47 a.m., to be exact. After a week I could almost set a clock by it. The bird, and it must have been the same bird, never got tired of the routine.

My family and I are the live-in caretakers on the Moon Homestead and Randolph Ranch, 13 hilly acres with a huge garden and apple orchard, an old farmhouse and other outbuildings, goats and chickens, and, recently, two dozen sheep keeping the grass down in the orchard. It’s all tucked away in Missoula’s North Hills, a roundabout drive but technically still in city limits. I love it when someone asks me where the homestead is and we’re standing where we can see the hills. Then I just have to point. Otherwise I typically start giving directions by asking them if they’ve ever been to the landfill, which saves a lot of time. It’s an unfortunate but effective landmark.

“So what do you do up there?” We get that all the time. The short answer is old-time homestead stuff, depending on the time of year. For seven months there’s digging, planting, watering, pruning, weeding, picking, feeding the animals, whitewashing and light construction. In the winter it’s mostly keeping the animals fed and watered. Not strictly part of the job—but undertaken in the spirit of the place—are pickling, brewing, fermenting, canning, pressing apples, the odd bit of musical saw-playing and, also in season, contemplative campfire-staring.

A caretaker is also supposed to be on hand on Saturdays from May through October to show visitors around. I lead group tours and field trips all year long, and in May particularly the place is swarming with fourth graders insane with spring fever. Sometimes classes walk over from the Rattlesnake and I can hear them long before I see them, their shrieks and laughs clattering around the grassy bowl the homestead sits in. Those last dreamy days of the vanishing school year, with chickens underfoot and goats that climb trees. You can imagine.

The caretaker contract calls for 15 hours of work per week; depending on the time of year there can be half of that or more than twice that. There’s always something to do. And it’s good old-fashioned manual labor, all right, tilling by hand and hauling water in three-gallon pails, with all the deep honest sleeps and well-earned beers that go with that. There’s never too much work for one day, but long-term projects galore. Paradise for the putterer, a lifetime of little hobbies to dork out on.

It’s an unpaid position, but it comes with a rent-free place to live. A pretty nice one, too: a radically remodeled chicken coop with a rainwater catchment system and south-facing windows that scoop up sun in winter and amplify the moonlight. It’s homey, cute and cluttered with most of our earthly possessions stuffed into three rooms. When the cabin starts getting too small, there are hundreds of acres to roam on long walks that have the added benefit of tiring out a 3 year old so mama and papa can enjoy a quiet hour or two before going to bed. The North Hills are our front yard. It’s rare to go up or down the driveway without seeing deer, rabbits, a bull snake basking on the gravel or, on rare occasions, a fox with a silver tail, always running away or crouched in the grass from a safe distance, watching back.

“How did you guys get this?” That’s our second most-asked question, occasionally tinged with resentment. The short answer is that a year and a half ago, Joanna and I heard through the grapevine that longtime caretakers Caitlin and Russ were moving back to England and the position might be opening up. We immediately fixated on the idea, pinky-swearing that we would drop whatever we had to if it meant getting to live there.

Our motives were fairly simple: It’s a gorgeous place, a rustic wonderland for kids, and we thought we would save money. In the end we won out—narrowly, I imagine—over several other applicants with comparable or superior qualifications. Neither of us had much animal experience, apart from a few summers on a dairy farm for me and a few childhood chickens for Joanna. I think it was our wild enthusiasm that put us over the top: We told the eight-person interview panel, which included relatives of the late namesake Randolphs, that we imagined it to be a place of endless inspiration.

Now we’re coming up on a year of being here, and the homestead is exactly as I remember it last fall when we found out we got the job. The nights are cooler and there’s just something about the light of the magic hour that says fall is in the air. The cured grass of the surrounding hilltops gleams bone-white in the moon; when we house-sat last year we thought it was snow. If this year is anything like last year, soon there really will be snow, and the sun will trace a low winter arc over the bowl and drop behind Randolph Hill, draping the rust and old wood and bare-limbed box elders in stark brumal blue. I can smell that air already.

•••
I say magpies will steal clothespins—they also steal eggs, right out of the chicken coop. At first I found it hard to believe that a magpie could carry a hen’s egg in its talons, even as I pondered the empty shells strewn here and there on the road with nobody around but flocks of guilty-looking magpies. There must be an evocative collective form for this bird: a heist of magpies, perhaps, or a filch of magpies. Or perhaps a loiter of magpies for the way they seem to lurk around waiting to see how you’re going to react. Anyway, I didn’t see how a magpie could build up enough thrust in the narrow chicken coop to clear the open window while carrying an egg. A friend told me he’d seen magpies carry off golf balls without much trouble, but it took catching one in the henhouse red-taloned for me to really believe.

Another thing I’ve learned about magpies is that people tend to have strong opinions about them, as carrion-eaters and nest-raiders and the repulsive corpse-birds of country roads. I can kind of relate to this. Carrion-eaters are a bracing reminder that nature’s cleaner-uppers don’t discriminate between a baked ham and a human hand. It’s hard to reconcile with a species keen to pick at your bones, perhaps more so than with an animal keen to kill you and eat you fresh. At least a man-eater takes a little ownership.

Like crows and big black birds generally, magpies appear to some people as ill omens. One visitor will tell me the magpie is his totem animal because he likes to hoard little trinkets, too, while the next will shudder at the very mention. Only a few people see them as just regular birds—and rather striking ones at that, certainly prettier than bareheaded turkey vultures or plain-Jane crows. “They’re evil,” one burly, bearded visiting sawyer told me, end of story. “They just are.”

While house-sitting last October, I found a passage in an ancient children’s nature book to the effect that “…in the spring, there isn’t a magpie to be found but that its beak is dripping with the yolk of stolen egg.” That struck me as rather judgmental, even for the more anthropocentric tone you often find in older nature writing. But it’s apparently true.  Magpies will steal and eat any seasonal morsel they can scrounge. I’ve seen them drag baby birds out of nests. It’s the Latin term for magpie or jay, in fact, pica, that lends itself to an eating disorder characterized by strange cravings. It often afflicts pregnant women: One of my wife’s friends wanted to lick a dirty whitewall tire. Ice cream with pickles is just weird. Whitewall grime—that’s pica.
As for magpies bearing grim tidings, there’s a good story—apocryphal—about a Polish prince named Poniatowski who fought in the Napoleonic wars. Supposedly as a young man the prince visited a Gypsy fortune-teller who warned him to avoid magpies at all costs. He didn’t take her warning seriously, or perhaps his German just wasn’t very good, because he drowned in the river Elster during the Battle of Leipzig. Elster, of course—cue melodramatic music—means magpie in German. A bridge Poniatowski had intended to demolish behind his retreating forces blew up while he was still on the wrong side, so the wounded prince tried, and failed, to swim across the river on his horse. As a dreary epilogue, a German fisherman later recovered his body, laid it out in full battle regalia and charged villagers admission to come into his hut for a look.

I don’t get a chance to tell that story on tours very often—certainly not to my fourth graders, far too busy running after chickens or feeding the grateful goats fistfuls of box elder leaves—their favorite thing to eat, as I never fail to mention prematurely in my tour. O youth. It was around the fourth grade, just as squirmy as they are, when I first read about Prince Poniatowski in a “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!” comic. Even then I never cared if the magpie story was literally true. Maybe if more unpopular species had romantic legends attached to them, people would be inclined to look on them more favorably.

When the homestead magpies finally decamped and egg counts picked up again, it struck me that I’d never been directly affected by an animal pest before. But now I had. We trade most of our eggs at the community co-op, three- or four-dozen a week at the peak of summer, so every egg that doesn’t make it to market is around 30 cents we don’t get in store credit. A lot of that credit will eventually go toward feeding the chickens through the winter, so summer is the time to build it up.

In retrospect, it’s surprising we made it as long as we did with no animal problems. Not long ago there were badgers living in a kitchen stove in one of the buildings, and a few years back the caretakers had to postpone the homestead’s annual Fall Gathering because a bear sow and two cubs were working the plum trees along the road every evening. This time of year, especially, everything seems to be on the prowl.

But I thought about it, and I couldn’t recall a previous occasion when I’d been more than slightly and temporarily inconvenienced by an animal that wasn’t an invertebrate. The last problem bird or mammal I could think of was a noisy pack-rat that kept all my friends and I awake when we rented a huge forest service cabin, exactly five years earlier. It sounded like Jesse Owens in clogging sandals. We were amazed to discover how small it was at breakfast the next morning.

The funny thing is, once it occurred to me that I’d had a pest problem, pest problems started popping up everywhere. After the magpies had moved on, ground squirrels and pocket gophers started moving in. There’s a huge fence around the garden to keep deer out, but nothing to stop determined rodents from tunneling under it. And from the pillowy mounds of dirt blooming up on all sides, by the time it registered as a potential problem the sapping campaign seemed well past the reconnaissance stage.

Russ, the former caretaker, warned me this would happen on one of the many afternoons we spent together to train me in the ways of the homestead. He took a particular interest in the gopher situation. Caitlin actually seemed more amused by it, or perhaps just by Russ’s response to it, which was to go commando.

Russ was a tough one to figure out. During our orientations, I was occasionally stumped by his accent. He pronounced “parks” like “pogs,” for example, so when he talked about getting pogs in to help with this and that, I didn’t grasp right away that meant the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.

Mostly, though, I couldn’t gauge his feelings for the homestead. Caitlin was the whole reason he was there. Raised in northern England, the change in environment could hardly have been more dramatic if he’d been cast up on a coral reef by a shipwrecked East Indiaman. He once remarked to me that he hadn’t seen a mollusk in a year and a half. There were a few other times like this when, mentally sifting through 18 months of homestead living for practical advice to pass on, he suddenly seemed stricken with melancholy for the smallest details of the place he was about to leave behind.

There was a lot of information to pass on in those sessions. A lot of it seemed remote and superfluous simply because the season when I’d need it was still a long way off. But it all comes back to me, Russ’s pithy remarks and Caitlin’s rather gentler observations, like when I’m sitting on my overturned bucket pondering what to do about the mounds of finely milled earth blooming closer and closer to my carrots. Then I can almost hear Russ talking right next to me. The barely concealed pride in his voice when he showed me his collection of traps—store-bought and homemade, and all with lethal intent—for making war on the ground squirrels and pocket gophers.

Caitlin’s brainy ghost haunts the henhouse, which she regarded as a sensory portal for communing with the spirits of former homesteaders. The smell of the coop on a hot day was a kind of time machine for her. In addition to writing a marvelous natural history of the homestead, Butterflies and Railroad Ties, Caitlin also devoted her doctoral thesis to documenting its salvage and rehabilitation, meticulously recording every pencil stub and piece of string that turned up in decaying boxes and rodent middens. On the rare occasion when homestead living gets me down, I just reach for the copy on my bookshelf for a fresh infusion of her enthusiasm—for the footpaths, for example, which reappear in the tall grass every spring like body memories, ley lines retracing a hundred years of daily chores. I think of Caitlin every time my teeth develop an unpleasant gritty film from spending more than a minute in the henhouse, which I’m sure she would take as a compliment. 

Russ’s homestead lessons tended to focus more on the here and now, and he definitely saved the juiciest parts for last. On our final afternoon together, he told me about the time he surprised a rabbit in the compost bin and killed it with a shovel, adding that rabbits were “the bananas of the animal kingdom” for how easily they pop out of their skins. That last afternoon I realized that whatever his sentiments toward the homestead, Russ had definitely gone a bit feral.

•••
The homestead is a demanding place. I try to make that clear to people when they ask what it’s like or how we like it. Rewarding and romantic, sure, but also a lot of hard work and a lot of putting up with things, as Joanna will remind me, that most people (read: most other wives) wouldn’t put up with. Chores have to be done at regular intervals that require planning around. They’re nothing compared with what the original homesteaders had to stay on top of, but we also lead lives that straddle the homestead and the city, the 19th and 21st centuries, in a way that theirs never did. The schedule juggling and the running around between work, school, preschool and laundry facilities are what make it hard for us, especially with only one car. Vacations are out of the question.

For some, the everyday details of homestead life might read like a cautionary tale, a laundry list of circumstances to avoid and ways never to live. It’s not all rustic romance. Hauling water gets old fast. The driveway turns into a bobsled track in the winter, and more than once we’ve had to park at the bottom and walk the last half mile in the dark, babe in arms, through a foot of fresh snow. In case of fire, never far from our minds in August, we’re under orders to stay put and breathe through urine-soaked tube socks or something rather than flee and potentially block emergency vehicles coming up the road.

We’re currently grappling with potty-training on a composting toilet that looks and behaves like nothing our older son encounters anywhere else; the simple fact that we live at such quarters with our feces is surely enough to dispel the romance for many. All four of us—Joanna, the two boys and me—sleep in the same bed; last Christmas it was one son, one pregnant wife, me and my mother-in-law, whose visit also coincided with us running out of water for two weeks. She’s not an especially adventurous person, my mother-in-law, but one thing I will say about her is that she can put a brave face on just about anything.

I worry that I complain too much about the homestead, make our lives out to be one long series of overlapping mishaps and infestations, but at least my complaints are fairly exotic. After hearing me recount some new homestead drama, a friend of mine recently observed that I have an entirely different set of worries than most people. He might have added that sometimes my complaints actually sound like thinly veiled gloating, a rural rubbing-in of things city folk don’t get to experience.

Like the night we heard our first coyotes. The way sound carries around the bowl of hills, it was impossible to be sure, but it sounded like they were right down at the big bend in the driveway. I promptly e-mailed a friend of mine in Toronto to tell him about coyotes in my backyard. He wrote back just as promptly to say that there was a prostitute performing a sex act in his backyard, and that he would take the coyotes.

•••
As it happened, I was wasting my time worrying about gophers and ground squirrels. A few carrots went missing and our first zucchini got gnawed in half on the vine, but the Mongol invasion I was expecting never came to pass. Our cat did her part, to judge from the flecks of light gophery brown in the litter of fur and bone and rodent hindquarters blanketing our little grassy yard. I used to scoop up the pieces and toss them over the road, but every morning there would be a new sprinkling of gore, so now I only bother if my older son starts to use the pieces as playthings. The cat has a field day up here. She still thinks she’s at the top of the food chain.

What finally ravaged was an almost biblical plague of grasshoppers. Grasshoppers so thick you literally couldn’t see the tops of the mustard greens. Dozens of grasshoppers shearing away into the grass with every step. Sleek, smug grasshoppers by the hundreds inching up the posts of the deer fence to catch the last rays of sun. The sound of chewing vying with the distant grinding of the highway.

In fact, the garden had been struggling for some time anyway. Despite my best efforts, in July and August I just couldn’t keep enough water on it, and my mulching efforts came to nothing thanks to the roaming chickens. If you want chickens to scratch something, put straw on it. I had to plant cucumbers three times because they kept nipping off the seedlings. Forget scarecrows—they just give birds a better view of what to eat. Our scarecrow actually has a family of birds living in it.

June snow didn’t help things either, but it looked as though the garden was going to make it until the grasshoppers moved in for the kill. They reduced my broccoli to bright green fingers of stalk pointing in all directions; our bounteous harvest was one, one broccoli floret, somewhat larger than you’d find in a bag of frozen mixed vegetables. The root crops were safe in the ground, but in less than two weeks the grasshoppers made a smoking crater out of the beans, the greens, half the cabbages and one tiny bonsai watermelon vine that had been hanging on for three months without getting any bigger than a dinner plate. Then the sheep broke in and chewed the tops off the remaining cabbages by way of a parting gift before returning to winter pasture, followed by deer that polished off the surviving cucumbers, vines and all.

Still, the grasshoppers did 90 percent of the damage. This being my second direct experience, my thoughts returned to categorizing pests and nuisances. Pest is a stronger word than nuisance, deriving from the Latin root pestis. As far as I can tell, English is the only language that tosses this root around casually to mean any old kind annoyance or bother, a la Ramona the Pest.

And there’s nothing around the homestead I consider a pest in the severest sense. Mosquitoes, for example, I only consider a nuisance, even though the nearest standing water to the homestead is a settling pond at the landfill and every time a mosquito bites me I can practically feel them injecting trace amounts of battery acid and diaper juice along with the usual anticoagulant. But until they start carrying West Nile they are still just nuisances.

Moths and millers are just annoying with their mindless bulb-ramming and the way they litter every sill and shelf with their powdery bodies. There’s an annoying species of thrip or leafhopper that rains on my head in green flurries when I walk under the box elders, but this I’ve managed to deal with by not walking under any box elders, to the extent it’s possible on the homestead.

The grasshoppers I deal with by hunting them with a slingshot and a pocket full of green plums. This seemed like good sport until I noticed that I was also goading my targets in a menacing Taxi Driver voice and getting up close to admire the little accordion pleats of abdomen plastered against the fence post by a direct hit. That’s when it occurred to me that I, too, might have gone a bit feral.

On the other hand, the crickets up here are amazing. On warm evenings the homestead is a surround-sound auditorium of them, piping in from all corners. Individual crickets are minimalist performers, but their combined chirps create complex harmonics and meshes of sound phasing in and out like pianists playing the same eight-note figure at slightly different speeds. With Perseid meteors streaking overhead, it’s like a primordial version of a Pink Floyd laser light spectacular. When I pick up my musical saw to join in the high-lonesome chorus, the crickets go stonily silent, like I’ve disrupted their performance, and wait until I’ve finished before starting again.

•••
In late July, I was on my way to pick up our 3 year old from school when I startled a red-tailed hawk in the little dip in the road by the chicken coop. Cool! was my first thought. Red-tailed ha— and then it hit me. Sure enough, there was a little eddy of black feathers kicked up by the hawk’s wings swirling around a black lump on the gravel with a raw drumstick poking out. There was nothing I could do about it at that point, so I just kept driving. By the time I got back, only the swirling feathers were left. Later I found a beak with part of the chicken’s face attached, but the rest had completely disappeared. Vaporized.

It was actually kind of awesome. The hawk’s thoroughness made it seem like a fair trade. I’d raised this bird from a chick, but I was willing to let it go as long as it remained an isolated incident. The chick cost $1.50 or something, which was pretty cheap compared to some homestead lessons we’ve had to learn the hard way. I probably would have paid $10 just to watch the hawk do it.

Then the real tragedy: One night in August, a group of these grown-up chicks, now chicken teenagers, didn’t return to the coop. Caught unawares by a sudden downpour, too dumb or inexperienced to seek shelter, they huddled under a box elder in the yard all night and made easy targets for something that killed them with maximum brutality. When I went down to feed them the next morning, I found five dead birds with clots of wet feathers and long trailing entrails everywhere.

Again I hoped it would prove to be an isolated incident, but this time my wish did not come true. Since then, we’ve lost two thirds of our flock to this thing, which will not be trapped and refuses to show itself. Three black Australorp teenagers are still alive from the dozen I raised this year, and even the wily older leghorns and reds are fewer by half. They’re all confined to the coop these days.

The evidence points to a weasel or a skunk, possibly a ferret. The really infuriating thing is that whatever is killing our chickens is doing a piss-poor job of eating them—a missing neck here, a half-gnawed breast there—which just adds insult to injury. A fellow UWICO (urban-wildland interface chicken owner) suggested that what looks like wasteful killing and distracted nibbling might actually be the animal’s long-term plan of ensuring a future food supply by essentially creating its own carrion. Wolverines, for example, will befoul their food with urine and feces to deter other species and return to it at their leisure.

That bit of comforting rationalization made me feel a little better, but the whole thing still sucks. One chicken survived an attack at the cost of one eye and every scrap of flesh on its head, and now the other chickens attack it when it tries to eat at the communal pan. It’s ghastly. In the past, reading in the paper about some new conflict between livestock and predators, I instinctively sided with the predator: Go on, nature, show ’em who’s boss! But now I can see where the ranchers are coming from. It’s not just the economic blow. When you care for an animal and another animal kills it, it’s really hard not to take it personally.
•••
The attacks have fallen off for a few weeks now. A fragile truce with the weasel, or the skunk, or whatever it is. Bears could be next. I keep a lump of old dried bear scat I found in the orchard last spring to show to the fourth-graders, who react with a chorus of delighted eeeyews, noses crinkling in unison.

When I visited the homestead for the first time in 2001, I pictured myself living on it the way you picture yourself living in a nice town you pass through while visiting a foreign country, which is to say briefly and not seriously. Peering inside the converted chicken coop where the last Randolph had lived alone for almost 40 years, I could hardly have guessed that the woman I’d barely started dating would someday give birth to our second child in the same room. Now I don’t remember what life was like before and I dread the thought of ever leaving. I tell people that the kids will burst the timbers of the house before I’m ready to leave. I just hope they carry this place with them forever when we finally do.

Our friends have been cracking Shining jokes since we moved in. Mostly for the cabin-fever potential, but I wonder if the more prescient ones didn’t also foresee how completely the place would take us over. Sometimes, following those timeless paths through the grass, rubbing the ancestral grit off my teeth with my sleeve, I feel like I have always been here, always have been the caretaker.

The Eighth Annual Moon-Randolph Fall Gathering takes place Saturday, Oct. 4, beginning with an apple pressing at 2 p.m. A potluck dinner follows at 5 p.m. Suggested $5–$10 donation, plus an entrée or dessert for the potluck.


 
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