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A Touch of El Paso in Harford County


Havre de Grace. -- In the cool before sunrise, the horses weren't waiting at the gate as they usually are. They were still out in the foggy pasture somewhere on the other side of the stream. I whistled, but nothing happened.

So I walked a hundred yards through the dewy grass, crossed the little stream overflowing from a spring up in the woods, and whistled again. This time I heard them coming, but the fog was so thick I couldn't see them yet.

Signs of the terrible drought were all around me, although in the damp chilly morning with my feet soaked from the dew it didn't feel especially dry. There were too-early touches of color in some of the trees. The grass was brown. The ground was hard underfoot, which was why I could hear the horses before I saw them.

Once the dew dried, little dust clouds would follow every horse and every cow, giving our normally gentle eastern landscape a harsh western look. With a cactus or two and a few tumbleweeds, our place would look like someplace out beyond El Paso. We even have an old cow's skull sitting on a fencepost.

Most of our springs are still running, which is remarkable after a year of sharply reduced rainfall, but some are little more than a trickle. This has forced me to make some adjustments on the farm.

I'm about to wean this year's calves, but the pasture where I usually put the cows doesn't have enough water for them. This means they'll have to go in another field. But the other fields don't have much grass left, so I'll probably have to start feeding hay much earlier in the fall than usual. While I have enough hay to do this, feeding it now means I won't have it to sell later, when it would bring a good price.

Low rainfall will also affect the sale of my calves. While some of the early-planted corn in our area has done well, the overall local outlook for feedgrains is poor. Low production means higher prices. Higher prices for grain means that the people who fatten cattle will be paying lower prices for feeders.

This all makes sense; an economist could probably see a certain elegance in the cold rationality of the markets' behavior. But for the people harvesting drought-stricken corn or selling calves at a fraction of past year's prices, it's still not a very cheerful subject.

Yet the September morning, so cool and fresh with the sun just coming up, was as pleasant as anyone could ask. The horses emerged from the fog, some of them with tiny droplets of moisture on their faces. Water from a spring splashed out of a plastic pipe into a trough. A woodpecker tapped in a big ash tree overhead.

Perhaps because the weather reports that morning had been discussing the latest Caribbean hurricane, I thought of Ernest Hemingway's observation that there is no more perfect weather than in hurricane season, except when you're having a hurricane. I couldn't bring myself to wish for a hurricane, but I thought it would be nice if one came just close enough to bring us some rain.

I brought in the horses then and went about the various morning chores. The fog soon burned off and the sun shone brilliantly out of the clear blue sky, but the humidity was so low there was no discomfort. Hurricane season or not, it would be in most respects an absolutely perfect day.

A few hours later I walked back out to the place where I had been standing while waiting for the horses, and was stunned at what I found. The ash tree where the woodpecker had tapped was on the ground, its top branches lying in the stream. It had taken down a nearby walnut with it when it fell.

There must have been a terrific crash, but I hadn't heard it. There had been no wind, and the ash wasn't dead. When I poked around in the dusty hole where it had been, it looked as though the roots had simply let go. Perhaps it was because of the drought, or perhaps the ash had just concluded that its time had come. At least it hadn't fallen on anyone.

Later on we cut it up and hauled it away. Much of it, after it's split and dried, will make firewood. If it isn't ready to burn this winter it will keep until the next. It won't be wasted.

Now, when the horses on their way to the pasture gate pass the spot where it fell, they sometimes snort and widen their eyes. It would be romantic to suggest that they know something strange happened here, but it's more likely they're just feeling lively and enjoying this insidiously perfect fall weather.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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