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Books and Beyond

When I started reading “Seal Morning,” I knew it was the right book for me now. It was written by Rowena Farre, c 1956, about living in a croft in rural Scotland for seven years when she was a young girl. She was with her Aunt Miriam. Most of the time they are by themselves, and enjoying daily life in nature. There isn’t a plot … the book is more like a journal.

You see, we live in rural Minnesota, and during these times a week can go by where my husband and I don’t see anybody. We can sit in the yard and soak in the hot sunshine. We can walk around, enjoy all the green about us, and see how the garden is doing. Then we sit down to rest and talk over what animals we’ve had in our yard over the years.

The list we came up with for our place: butterflies, moths, cats, dogs, birds, skunks, toads, deer, snakes, a possum, and at least once a few cattle that had left a nearby farmplace because of a gate not being closed. Cats have been with us over the years. We learned from our daughter how they are part of the family. Her 4-H exhibit one year was a poster with pictures and text telling about her cats.

“Seal Morning” is not just about Lora, Rowena’s seal. It’s about many creatures that are welcome in the croft. (A croft is a small enclosed field, usually adjoining a field.)

Before she gets the seal from friends, Rowena and her aunt have Cuthbert and Sara, two squirrels

Hansel and Gretel, a pair of otter cubs

Rodney, a rat

Ben, a yellow Mongrel pup

Living in a barn are two goats (they are milked) and a pony. The other animals live sometimes outdoors, but they can come in the house with Rowena and her aunt anytime.

One of the seal’s many talents is music. Rowena has an 18th century book that shows an engraving of a seal playing bagpipes. Lora learns how to play the mouth-organ, using the blow-suck method. And she sang “Danny Boy” to Rowena’s accompaniment on the piano. I’m not making this up; the description is on page 31.

Rowena’s uncle had a musical evening at his place near Aberdeen, and invited Lora to be included. She basically took over the evening, so Rowena shut her up in a study. That didn’t work, because Lora wailed until she had to be let out and basically be the star of the show.

Next, we read about “Croft Life in Summer.” There are nine different ways of serving nettles for meals, including topping them with a poached egg. A salad might be sorrel leaves, watercress, and dandelion leaves. The have goat’s milk cottage cheese.

One time when Rowena walked by herself in the high hills, she forgot to take a compass. She is five miles from home, it is misty, and she has no food. Her dog Ben is with her, and he leads her back to the croft. Later there is a sad Ben story. He’s been eating a neighbor’s sheep, and this means the neighbor has the right to shoot him.

She finds a baby ptarmigan on this walk, names him Jim, and keeps him for six years before letting him go.

The chapter “Croft Life in Winter” begins with a couple who decide to buy a house in this area. They know how much Rowena and her aunt enjoy living here. But after five months they are ready to sell their house and move.

From mid-September to April or May daylight lasts just five or six hours. And the snow is so deep sometimes Rowena and her aunt have to go on their hands and knees on the path to the byre (cow shed).

One winter they brought 10 birds in the house and gave them “first aid.” First, they restored their circulation with an oil-lamp. They feed the birds warm milk, some bread soaked in milk, and scraps of fat. As the birds get well, they fly around the house, sometimes breaking things, but they get to stay, because Rowena enjoys their company.

One day during this stormy time, a bird outside taps on the window pane, and it is the ptarmigan they named Jim. Aunt Miriam opens the window, and the bird flies in and lands on her shoulder. He stays close by during the storm, then flies away and never comes back.

There are black and white drawings of animals throughout the book, by illustrator Raymond Sheppard, R.I. One of my favorites is on page 39 of Lora playing the xylophone, and on page 32 she is playing a harmonica. When I’m reading the book and looking at the drawings, I feel as if I’m living on a croft in Scotland.

From my maternal lineage, my great grandmother and her parents were from Locharron Parish, in the County of Ross & Cromarty, Scotland. Both women came with their families to America and settled in the Midwest.

Rowena Farre also wrote “A Time from the World” and “The Beckoning Land.” My reading list gets longer.

Although the Plum Creek Library System does not own “Seal Morning,” there are many other books about Scotland, seals and rural life to explore. Your Marshall-Lyon County Library is open 10 a.m-4 p.m., Monday-Friday, with a pick-up window open from 4-5 p.m. Monday-Friday and 9 a.m. to noon on Saturdays, marshalllyonlibrary.org.

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