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www.zidao.com Apprentice harmonizer, for sheer fun. Journeywoman writer, for work and pleasure. Starting point was Iowa, current stopping point on this journey is Switzerland, with frequent pauses around the world to watch and listen to the crowd, and occasionally make comments.

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Monday, November 07, 2005

Nuts to you, critters!

Two weeks ago the nuts came clattering down, raining on Cecile's old tin rooftop and bouncing off the gravel that practical farm people long ago decided made sense around the sides of the wooden chalet. For five years when our children were little we rented the chalet halfway up an Alpine slope to a fancy ski resort. We skied, but we also harvested raspberries and apples and plums and walnuts. Now I am a neighbor and Cecile again has the home where her mother raised eight children. I return for the nuts, which she shares with me.

Bag after bag I filled with the nuts, gathered in the fog. One of the two fine old trees, at 80-plus years, might have been planted by Cecile's mother who died, age 96, two years ago. The house itself is 300 years old and has a beam with a Latin inscription to prove it.

Old is nice. New nuts are even nicer. I spread them out to dry on a wooden rack, placing it on a wobbly but much-loved old cafe table a friend donated to the mountain abode we built after leaving Cecile's home. The table holds tools and seeds that never made it out to the garden and other symbols of good intentions. Some of the walnuts still had their husks when I gathered them, and all were damp from mornings in the shade of the old tree. A week later I could remove the husks. Two weeks later, thanks to an Indian summer with balmy days for air-drying them, we could eat the walnuts. I left them for one more week after checking the weather forecast: more sun, more warm days. A perfect finish to the walnut harvest.

Friday arrived and we returned to our chalet. I opened the shutters, went outside to the rickety table to bring in the nuts. One wooden rack was completely empty. The other had a few walnuts left. A sparse trail of them led to a fence with a steep slope on the other side. No neighborhood child would risk that. No other signs of the culprits.

I have, in 10 years of coming to the Alps regularly, seen only two or three squirrels. They are creatures of the plains here. Next year we may find the population, well fed, has suddenly boomed.

Critters, my family would have called them. Last year this time we had another critter, a guinea fowl that had flown an unknown coop and moved into the plum tree of a nearby empty farmhouse. For two weeks he gorged himself on rotting plums. We bothered him with cameras, the cats bothered him with curiosity and in the end, a fox just bothered him to death. None of us saw his final fight, but we heard it early one morning, after we had grown used to his odd noises and daily forays into the meadow to search for food.

Saturday I watched ducks and other birds flying over, on their way south from Scandinavia, and wonder how many will be lost to bird flu in the future. At least our guinea fowl was not bothered by that.

This year we've had sheep for the November critter show. (Vegetarians, stop here.) A small herd of them were suddenly at the edge of the lawn one day, nibbling farmer Bernard's grass, and then two men herded them into a very steep, generally useless scrap of land. Electric wires and posts went up, and the sheep put their heads down and went to work. Sunday, the grass shorter and the sheep plumper, the inscrutable black faces, for that is their family name, trotted up a little ramp into a cart and were driven off.

Bernard's cows, Leila and Bluebell and BonBon and the others, are lucky that they give such large quantities of milk, and are much prized for it.

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