The cherries were ripening in what seemed to be the first warm days of the season, the bings and those yellow-red blush ones mostly for the delight of blue jays and crows. Just the minute you notice the crows tearing into the cherries it's time to clean the trees and let them ripen fully in paper bags or something, unless you want to fool with bird netting and all those contraptions. I had mixed feelings about the crop of cherries because they're mostly rootstock, tiny red beads that are bitter but might be tasty soaked in schnapps, and the few true trees remaining from the old Boont Berry farm after the fires raged across the tiny prairie some years ago are those yellow-red ones that don't really get sweet enough for kids to fight over.
We'd just planted corn a week before, and the sprouts were barely poking through the dry dust and clods at the surface, so as the boys and I harvested cherries I had to wonder if the crows were going easy on the cherries in favor of the corn sprouts, or vice versa, or if the buggers were simply devastating everything.
Corn sprouts are of course the sugar source of malt liquor and Tennessee whiskey, and they're sweeter than cherries. The ravens and crows of Anderson Valley are keen to this knowledge, and with their piercing eyes they can detect the first twisted chute protruding. Turn your back for a minute and you'll see 80 of them like a biker gang whooping it up, pulling your maize by the roots. The strategy I've developed is to plant the corn in furrows, only burying the kernels a couple inches so the sun can warm the seeds, and hopefully there's enough moisture in the soil after you press down with your foot that the seed will sprout. I don't like to irrigate over planted corn because there's the danger of forming a crust at the surface. Besides, you just don't need to.
Then about the time I see the first crows poking around in the furrows I know it's time to hurry out there with a disc harrow and lightly push another couple inches of soil over the furrows, so the corn blades won't reach the surface for a few more days. This way they're well rooted when the crows can get their beaks on them, and the birds can't pull them up for the sweet kernel, which is what they're after. Plus, you end up getting a real jump on the weeds. You have to plant thick using that strategy, though. “One for the raven, one for the crow,” they used to say. “One for me.”
“Looks like the corn is just about to poke through,” I told my youngest boys on Wednesday afternoon as we braved the frigid northern wind and inspected the furrows. We were raking the clods and dust aside, inspecting. White spurs were evident. “I better come out here tomorrow morning first thing and pull the disk, hide these guys before the crows get them.” Here and there were sprouts nipped off or uprooted — evidence. “Darn it, I should have done this yesterday.”
I would have covered the corn sprouts on Tuesday, except it took all day to cut this hayfield because the peas and oats were so overgrown from the wet spring. Where they weren't falling down, the peas with their clinging tendrils held the oat stalks upright so with each pass of the mower I could barely tell where I had previously mowed. They stood like soldiers trained in boot camp. The crop was a success and a nightmare all in one, with clumps of peas and oats that bunched in front of the old mower, tangled together so I had to rip with all I had — manually — to drag them behind the blades. Three acres of hay I thought would be cut in a few hours, but it was dark when I finally limped home, and never got around to covering the corn.
Then I was wiped out Wednesday like you feel the day after you wrestle with an even match, muscles sore that you didn't even know about, as they always said. That evening, after the boys had gone off with my ex, the dogs and I ventured out on our nightly stroll to fetch in the cows. I glanced at the cornfield where I would estimate that 80 crows and ravens were partying. There was no way to count them. “Crap!” I hollered, running in the general direction of the field so the dogs would get the gist and raise hell. The whole flock raucously took to the air like a squadron of helicopters kicking up dust in eddying clouds. They flew over the hills, in fact, none lingering, like they knew they'd just robbed me blind.
In the morning I reluctantly pulled the disk with the tractor as I'd originally planned to do several days earlier, and buried the remaining corn sprouts, wishing them luck. You never know if a crop will fail, if some critter or fungus will snatch it from your fingertips.
On Sunday morning I was surprised to see a dozen canada geese out in the field where potatoes, onions, and tomatoes are growing. They were clearly feasting on something, but what? Hardly anything wants to eat the somewhat toxic leaves of spuds or their tomato cousins, and I'd never seen any insect, mammal, or bird gnaw on onion greens unless you count some voracious snails in a greenhouse, once.
“They're probably eating the green tomatoes off the starts, doing me a favor,” I told the dogs. “Wouldn't that be something?”
When the milking was done, I had to venture out to the field to see what these geese had been up to. It turned out they'd gobbled several rows of onion tops pretty much down to the ground.
“Ate them clean down to the ground,” I told two X's later, at about eight in the morning as we had coffee on the picnic tables in front a coffee shop that wasn't open, yet. The people inside had generously allowed us to fill our mugs, and we were enjoying a pleasant conversation while one carload of tourists after another pulled up to the curb wondering if in fact the coffee shop was open.
“Nope, they're closed,” we said, and watched the people slam their doors and roar off, squealing tires in disgust, perhaps opting to stop for Joe in Cloverdale.
The two X's at the picnic table with me were not mine. They were a single mom and a single dad. Neither one was the ex of either, or of me. We all have one or more X in Anderson Valley, but none mutual that I know of.
“Who'd of ever thought anything would eat onions?”
“Why didn't you pull out the shotgun?” asked the ex who is now a single dad.
“Well, shit, there it was pretty much first thing in the morning and I hadn't even had any coffee, yet. I mean, I wondered what the heck they were eating. Since when does a flock of Canada geese descend on your field in the middle of June, anyway?”
“It's such a nice day,” said the other ex. She's a single mom. She's probably got as many X's as I have, but I'm not one of them. Not yet, anyway. “We should go to the river.”
“I've got the kids,” said the ex who is a dad.
“I've got one,” said the one who is a mom. “Perfect. Let's do it.”
They both looked at me. “How about you?”
“Man, I got to cut hay today.”
“Oh, it can wait.”
“To shit it can. I cut half the field yesterday. I've got the boys, tomorrow. I have to do it today.”
I thought about them all the whole time I listened to the clatter of the old sickle bar mower slicing through dry wild oat stalks and dark green trefoil with the yellow flowers and honey bees scattering before the blades. I thought about my two friends, their X's who are also my friends, my own X's who are pretty much my friends. Someday we would all be friends, by and by. “They'll probably all be each other's X one of these days,” I told myself. Driving the tractor, there's not a man alive who doesn't talk to himself all day. Shout over the roar of the motor, more like it. “Fools, all of them!” Hell, I was lucky I had these hay fields to keep me out of trouble. I was lucky, also, to have a cooler of beer for all the times the vetch got plugged up in front of the sickle bar. You ought to hear the things a person says when they've just cleaned a whopping wad of green legume from in front, under, and stuck in the teeth of the rustic mower, only to have the whole thing bunch up again without cutting a single stalk. The sickle bar mower will teach a person to slow the heck down. The implement is pretty much obsolete these days, sort of like the typewriter, the cassette player, and the ball point pen. Yet there is a certain peace of mind that goes along with the sluggish pace. And if you've ever run one of those modern disc mowers with their rapidly spinning blades spitting stones like a whole gang of boys with slingshots, you might appreciate the antique.