How the Hen House Turns: Safety in Trees

How the Hen House Turns:
Safety in Trees
By Carolyn A. (Cary) Neeper, Ph. D.

At age 11, there were times when I felt exposed in a world filled with scoffing eyes. That’s why, after basking in my brother’s accepting company as we walked back through the tall mustard flowers toward the house, I ran to the pepper tree.

My green dome world under that tree was all cool green and sunlight. The big horizontal branches, as wide as a stuffed chair, took me up and held me gently against rough bark. It felt good to be alone there, away from mirrors and everyone else. I could reach the lovely tree’s fine green veils. I could dress myself in necklaces of red peppercorns. I was a child of the pepper tree. I could be a poet there. I too could be firmly rooted. I could reach upward and feel the graceful sheets of lacy leaves all around me.

Down the hill beyond the mustard flowers flowed a narrow stream, and beyond the steam stood two apple trees, large and inviting, with low branches and delicate leaves that had framed their beautiful pink and white blossoms the previous spring.

On the far side of the road nearby, a row of tall cherry trees stood sentinel on a hill, and beyond them the land gradually rose into a vast prairie of tall grass that probably hid the skeletons of beasts long dead, lost and starved from wandering too far from home. I remember sitting in those cherry trees, high above the ground, picking the ripe fruit and eating more than went into the bucket.

I walked back across the stream, which was nothing more than a trickle between berry bushes. Someday I would walk through the tunnel of bushes all the way to the eucalyptus forest on the east end. I might even walk into the forest…someday.

Back up the hill, I hung by my knees from the fig tree with perfectly smooth, horizontal branches. Then I would get up my nerve for a difficult task, like climbing the boards nailed to the eucalyptus tree that formed a vase-shaped hideaway 20 feet off the ground.

These days, my memory is filled with soaring ponderosas in the backyard on Walnut Street. One tree stood near the Hen House, shading the pen, but it was looking ill, its needles half brown. I wondered if it was suffering from the drought, then I realized that it got lot of water from the birds’ pans, dumped every night so they would not freeze or collect too much mud. Perhaps the big ponderosa was getting too much nitrogen from the birds’ waste. All the other ponderosas in the yard were doing fine. Their silhouette against the early morning reds and yellow of sunrise is unforgettable.

Here in California, we have a giant live oak near our sunroom. It has a healed scar that looks into our bedroom as if it were a guardian protector. The squirrels come every day to eat its bullet-shaped acorns. One has a gorgeous coat of black. Sometimes they quickly nibble the ends of each acorn and throw them down. Only occasionally will they sit and peel and chew an entire nut.

Sometimes a doe and her fawn come by. While the mother concentrates on eating acorns, the little one explores the garden and helps himself to a strawberry blossom, only one.

Nearby small sparrows dance in the thick bushes, and overhead a young pistachio tree shines with brilliant yellow leaves. Down the way, visible from the dining hall, its relatives displayed shades of orange and red for the entire fall, between mid-October and mid-December. I didn’t expect such color. It’s been a nice surprise.

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