When I have written items in this space about animals, I have been following in the paths of two earlier Rappahannock Record columnists, Joyce Russell and Stanley Stewart.
Joyce wrote a piece that she entitled “Window on Wildlife,” which she began while a high school student and continued for the rest of her life. She concentrated on local fauna, always willing to visit anyone who had spotted an unusual animal in the area.
She possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of nature in all of its forms. She would sit for long periods to observe a particular animal’s eating habits, or a Canada goose’s migratory flight pattern, or a crab’s shedding its carapace, all of which she duly recorded for her readers’ enlightenment and enjoyment.
Many years ago, I saw a bald eagle in our valley field, standing by the remains of a small animal, which I thought to have been a squirrel. Forming a circle around the eagle were some buzzards that recognized their subsidiary role. When buzzards are dining on a piece of carrion, as soon as an eagle arrives, they back off.
I called Joyce to describe what I had seen, and she immediately gave me one of her interesting discourses on what I was witnessing. She was always available and willing to share her knowledge and experience with anyone who asked. Her columns were filled with interesting details about animal behavior. When she would be eating in a restaurant, other patrons would come over to her table to tell her what they had seen in their fields or to ask what a particular animal’s characteristics were.
As I have seen photographs of recent bear sightings in the lower Northern Neck, I have thought of Joyce and how intrigued she would be, delving into their comings and goings, prognosticating on what their presence here meant and urging her readers not to get close to them, for her writings always had a practical twist as well.
Stanley Stewart differed from Joyce in that his columns focused on domestic animals. He called his piece, “Animals Are Smart,” which he wrote from his home in White Stone, surrounded by his menagerie of chickens, ducks, geese, goats, pigs and his greatest prize of all, his hinny.
Stanley and his wife, Marian, did not have children of their own and they enjoyed having their animals as a treat for visitors’ children to come to see. They also encouraged local teachers to bring their classes to learn about animals and many teachers kept a trip to the Stewart barnyard on their curriculum each school year.
The Stewart property was divided into paddocks where the different species could congregate together with their pals. Stanley built all of the animal housing himself, thereby adding to the overall bucolic charm of the setting. Stanley did not give his chickens any leeway in establishing a pecking order. If he saw any one chicken pecking on the others, that chicken likely would wind up in Marian’s stewpot. Stanley was a big believer in the “Peaceable Kingdom.”
As I noted above, the hinny was Stanley’s favorite. A hinny is the counterpart to a mule. Whereas a mule is the offspring of a female horse, a mare, and a male donkey, a jack, the hinny has a donkey for its mother, a jenny, and a stallion for its sire. As with a mule, a hinny cannot reproduce. Unlike a mule, a hinny tends not to be stubborn. Stanley’s hinny was a gentle animal, eager to be petted and happy to greet visitors.
In his columns Stanley would describe the extent to which animals could be “intelligent.” Caring for his charges was pure fun for him, and he transmitted that joy to his readers. Between Joyce and Stanley, both the wild kingdom and the barnyard received due coverage.