by Helga Tacreiter
I met Hope because I was looking for a home for my cows. We were on rented land, and I wanted some place permanent... a forever home. I read an article in the Animals' Agenda about Hope and the Refuge, which mentioned that they were trying to acquire adjoining land. It turned out that the Refuge was only 20 some miles from where we were. I thought how wonderful it would be to be neighbors to a true wildlife sanctuary, hoping that perhaps I could "go in" on this additional land.
So I called Animals' Agenda and asked if they could give me contact information on the lady with the unpronounceable name. They could, they did and I called Hope and made an appointment. She gave simple, clear, directions.
A few days later I drove down Unexpected Road for the first time. It was a sand dirt road, the only unpaved road I'd seen in the area. When I turned onto the narrow, twisting, mile long driveway, I had a feeling that I think everyone who has visited the Refuge knows. It just made you catch your breath. There was a presence, indescribable, palpable.
And then I reached the cabin. Just outside the door, sitting on a stool next to a round table, was a tiny, old, smiling, white haired woman with a scarf on her head, tied under her chin. She rose, extended her hand and said "welcome" in the most genuine way I had ever heard the word said. That presence which I had felt on the way in surrounded her, emanated from her. Extraordinary is too weak a word to describe her. (I looked in the thesaurus for help...it suggested "unexpected" as a synonym!)
She invited me to sit at the table with her, and we began talking. Hours passed. There was no chit chat; every subject she touched on was deep, meaningful, and thought through carefully. The lightest area we broached was the total unsuitability of the adjoining land for cows. It was completely wooded, and of course, cutting down any trees was not even a remote possibility for either of us.
We agreed that I would return the following week, when she would show me more of the Refuge, and I could do some volunteer work to help clear trails and such, not just talk!
I came back the next week, and every week from then on, for the next thirteen years, until she died.
Every time was as special as the first. This "little old lady" was a dynamo, as well as being wise beyond belief. Well into her 70's, she handled, with ease, a weed whacker with a spinning saw blade, not nylon string. If there was a fallen tree across the trail, she sawed it up by hand with a buck saw, reciting poetry during rest periods. Then she wheelbarrowed the chunks of wood back to the cabin for winter fires, sometimes a half hour trip for each load. "Wood warms twice", she quoted with a smile, "once when you cut it and again when you burn it."
As we cleared trails, Hope showed me wonderful things I'd had no knowledge of. The first one I remember was on the way to Otter Dam. There was the core of a pine cone, and close to it, the flakes of the cone. "Red squirrels leave these behind, in this manner, after they eat the seeds," she told me. When we looked inside the bluebird houses, she knew which birds had built their nests inside, by the building materials they had used. They weren't always bluebirds. Sometimes swallows had claimed the house, sometimes wrens, once a mouse. In Bluebird Field, Hope tied thin ribbons of torn sheets around thistles, to remind me not to mow them down. Goldfinches love to eat thistle seeds, I learned and so the thistles were protected.
The first time I encountered a "bait pile," just barely outside the Refuge border, she gave me her thoughts on it. The hunters were going to try and kill the deer, no matter what. If the deer was still, and busy eating, the chances were much better that it would be a quick death, rather than a horrible wounding, followed by a prolonged dying. She looked at it from the point of view of the deer, rather than an abstract sense of fairness.
When she fell and fractured her knee, I was her driver to the doctor's office. After the splint came off, the doctor recommended an exercise to be done as she sat at the edge of her bed. She was to swing her leg gently back and forth, several times a day, starting with ten swings, then gradually increasing the number of repetitions. "How many times a day should I increase to, before I see you again?" she asked him. "Oh, no more than ten thousand," he joked.
For the next month, Hope sat at the edge of her bed with a yellow legal pad and pen, keeping score of her leg swings. She worked her way up to ten thousand. The doctor was flabbergasted. "I was kidding," he said. "But you certainly won't need any physical therapy now." And Hope was back to walking the trails.
Of course, the high point of every trip to the Refuge was Beavertime. Late in the afternoon, Hope would cut six apples into wedges, put them in a basket, and we would go to the edge of the stream and sit quietly. Before long, there would be beavers, gliding through the water, towards were we sat. One by one they would come out of the water to accept the piece of apple Hope offered each of them. Sometimes they took the apple back into the water to eat it, and at other times they sat next to Hope while they munched delicately. One year there were two snapping turtles and a shy muskrat who came for apples as well.
As Hope grew into her 80's, and her strength and health began to fade, we talked about what would happen with the Refuge. I couldn't take over, because I was already committed to my own sanctuary, with the cows. Hope understood completely, as she loved cows dearly too. " I almost married a man when I was young, " she once confided, "because he had a herd of beautiful Brown Swiss cows."
There was poem in which she found great comfort as she wondered about the future of the Refuge:
Hope's observations of nature became closer to home. She planted a butterfly garden, and watched the beauty it attracted. When wasps moved into the butterfly house, she gently coaxed them back out with her thin, graceful fingers. They won't sting you, she taught me, if you move slowly. With fascination, she observed the comings and goings of ants in the garden. No longer able to saw up logs, she gather kindling instead. Serenely, with faith in the unknown, she waited.
And then along came Sarah. Hardworking, quick-witted Sarah, who could always make serious Hope laugh.
In my last memory, Hope was on her couch, surrounded by family and friends, fading in and out of consciousness, as she lay dying. After a period of sleep, she opened her eyes and looked at me. "Oh, Helga," she said, in her typical matter-of-fact way, "you're still here. I guess I'm not dead yet." Then Sarah said something, and did a little dance. Hope laughed and closed her eyes for the last time.
Thus it was that Hope could leave in peace, knowing that her beloved Refuge was in good hands.