A long time ago, before I was born, my great-aunt and -uncle were the proprietors of Five Oak Pony Farm in Baltimore County, Maryland. The farm was named not for five trees, but for one tree: The Five Oak, so called for its five major limbs. Situated on the crest of Satyr Hill, I'm told that it could be seen from Baltimore Harbor, some ten or twelve miles away; a huge tree.
My great-uncle, a taciturn Welshman named Evor Esaias, I do not remember well; he passed away early in my childhood. My great-aunt, on the other hand, I must cite as a major influence in the course of my life. Her given name was Eunice, but I and everyone else knew her (for reasons beyond my ken) as Aunt Pete. She was a naturalist; along with my grandfather (her brother) and my mom, she is responsible for my lifelong love of birds. When I eventually became a falconer, Aunt Pete had a better understanding than anyone else in my family of what that entailed. She herself interacted with hawks in a different way: a crack shot with an air rifle, she would dispatch grey squirrels when they overstayed their welcome at her birdfeeders, leaving them for the resident redtails on a sawed-off tree limb she called "the altar".
But long before this, she and Uncle Evor would ensnare carpenter bees in nooses of horsehair; we kids would hold the end of the horsehair and the bees would fly in little circles around us. We would feed the fish in her pond, or try to catch the chickens in her coop, or watch the birds come and go from the feeders, or explore the woods and the abandoned house down the hill. (Looking back, I know it had to have been lived in at least into the 1930s; we once found parts of an old Monopoly game, with green paint nearly worn from the wooden houses and red from the hotels.) We had the run of the place, and I feel sorry for kids who don't have their own places to roam at will.
Horsehair, yes—back on track now. The pony business was done before my time, but three Shetlands remained: Tryggvi, her daughter Twig, and Natalie. Tryggvi, like Uncle Evor, died early in my life, leaving only faint fond memories. Twig left me with more significant recollections. Although I had been warned many times not to walk behind the horses, I was on one occasion sent flying through the air by a rear hoof to the chest—an early lesson in being polite to animals that has served me well. (The companion lesson in minding my elders took repeating, but eventually that set in also.) This incident notwithstanding, Twig was a sweetheart, and I enjoyed currying her and feeding her sweet oats as much as I enjoyed riding her.
But if Twig was a sweetheart, Natalie was my sweetheart, arguably my best friend through my middle-school and high-school years. Twig's idea of a joke was to brush off an unwary rider on a low-hanging branch, but Natalie was very gentle and absolutely trustworthy, and I rode her far more often. Later, on visits home from university, I would sometimes bring her apples (Twig had passed away by this point), burying my nose in her neck as she gently slurped the fruit from my outstretched palm. She never forgot me, and I can only hope she didn't worry too much about where I disappeared to.
Forgive my rambling; such are the thoughts triggered by the rediscovery of an old photograph, discolored by age but vivid in memory. I loved these little horses, and I find by the tears and the smile on my face that after all this time, I still do.
[Twig (left) and Natalie]