Perfect Happiness/Natural Wonder Found at My Farm
by Nathan Oravec
“Mama fox has some very fancy habits,” the older gentleman says smiling, his delicate voice nonetheless thick with a precise, staccato accent. He gingerly gestures to the edge of the stonework no more than five feet from the patio chair where he sits sipping Swedish coffee on a lovely July morning. That, he explains, is where the gray fox has visited both he and his wife, Katarina, on and off over the last eight years - at times with her “husband” and their babies. It’s peculiar, his voice raises, “When she has small ones, she disappears for weeks at a time.” She’s lost several pups already to the road - Route 45 - that parallels his spacious farm here in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. To keep Mama from venturing there in the winter, he and his wife began supplying her with a delicacy - puppy chow - those many years ago when they struck up an impromptu friendship with the visitor. “In eight years we’ve learned a little bit about her good and bad habits - mostly about the bad,” he laughs. The most recent homecoming was in May. She hasn’t been by since. “You’re always worried that your old friend might be getting into trouble.”
Although Rudolf’s surname is Lemperg, not Doolittle, and though he’s quite a different kind of doctor - a retired Orthopedic Surgeon with over forty years in the trade - it is immediately apparent that he can, indeed, talk to the animals. When he refers to the gray, mama fox as his “special friend,” he is sincere and it is easily imagined that the two have had many meaningful conversations together.
A fourth generation physician, Rudolf was born and raised in Austria, Germany on a farm that, like his trade, was passed down through the doctors’ lineage. Although not farmers in the strictest sense of the word, the family grew what was needed for day to day life, serving the land as proper stewards. Rudolf’s father, Friedrich, was an internationally known botanist, establishing a botanical garden that received widespread acclaim before being destroyed during the Second World War. This intrinsic love of flora and fauna would remain with Rudolf throughout his life.
For twenty years, Rudolf worked almost mainly in the field of academic medicine and research, where he developed a keen interest in detailed photography. While serving as the Dean of a Medical School in Northern Sweden, Rudolf and Katarina met for the first time. A fluke, Rudolf laughs - in the international medical community, “I could have very well ended up in Japan.” Common interests drew the couple together, and before long - they were married. “Then,” he laughs, “she made the big mistake to come with me to the US.”
As a researcher Rudolf became friend and associate to fellow professionals from across the globe. In the mid-70s, one of his contacts, a professor for the University of Miami, invited him to come to the states to pursue his research. Rudolf agreed. There, he worked for several years before a cut in funding and a subsequent invite from the Chief of Orthopedic Surgery at the University of Morgantown brought him and his family to West Virginia. He remained at the University for three years, before yet another drop in funding inspired him to enter private practice in Martinsburg.
At Christmastime 1982, Rudolf and Katarina purchased a cattle farm at Goose Pond, tucked away from society just off Shepherdstown Road. Here, on sixty-four acres of lush woodland and open field, punctuated by the titular three-quarter acre pond - the emotional core of the property - the couple created a personal paradise over the last two decades, providing a home and hideaway for themselves and numerous creatures great and small.
The animals, Rudolf explains, were present well before he and Katarina came along. They had moved in following the passing of the farm’s former owner, a fellow doctor, and had taken up residence during his six years of absence. “All of this was jungle when we came here,” he says. “It was overgrown with weeds and ivy.”
It wasn’t long before the couple realized they were not alone. Apart from the cows - regularly attended to by the friendly Farmer Daniel, as they had been for twenty years - the Lemperg’s neighbors from the forest soon introduced themselves. From the “Old Gander,” the first pair of Canadian Geese that arrived at the pond in 1989 and continue to return today to the deer that first wandered into the backyard to eat sunflower seeds meant for the birds. To the birds, like the four hummingbirds who flitter above the porch vying for nectar - “two gentlemen and two ladies,” says Rudolf - or the Monarch butterflies that flock to the lovely lavender Buddelia, the Butterfly bush. Or the chipmunks who share a porch side breakfast with the doctor on occasion - or the handsome gray fox sweethearts who have been photographed sharing a kiss over a romantic meal of puppy chow.
Early on, Rudolf and Katarina decided to make their home as welcoming as possible for their new friends. “We purchased the farm twenty-two years ago, and ever since we’ve been trying to improve it for the animals.” Wild growth decorating vast spaces of land are intentional, he notes, and are not mowed, allowing food and coverage for “the birds, the rabbits, the deer and everybody else.” Likewise, sprays to curb the spreading of weeds and fungus are used only on rare occasion and then with extreme caution. Drawing on the botanical influence of his father, Goose Pond is also populated with trees and plants of exotic origin and intricate pattern, from the majestic Black Locusts and flowering Dogwoods to Spider Lilies.
“We try to manage the land so that it’s friendly for the animals. It’s only my wife and I who take care of it, so everything is planted and arranged so that it is a feasible task for two people.”
For Rudolf, the ability to provide a haven for his woodland associates has become crucial in recent years, due to an increasingly industrial society.
“We moved here because we liked open space,” he continues. “We bought this property because it was surrounded by farmland. Now, it’s surrounded by developments. It’s a big problem for the animals - and the people, too, I think.”
“My wife is from Sweden, I’m from Austria. Europeans are much more afraid of using up their land, because our countries are so much smaller. Here, people have the idea that the land is unlimited. But it is! You can see that it is! Nobody wants to talk about it, unfortunately. If I would know what to say, what could be done to improve the situation, I would be more than happy. I think development could be done with more thought to [the environment] and less thought to money.”
“We who have a little extra land should try extra hard to protect it,” he stresses. “These animals need a place to live on. If we just give them a little space, we could learn so much.” After all, he grins, “you never see two foxes kissing in a development.”
The foxes and the many, many other inhabitants of Goose Pond were recently honored in My Farm at Goose Pond: Shenandoah Valley, an impressive photographic documentation of life there, compiled and self-published by the doctor himself.
During his twenty-year tenure in medical research, Rudolf became fascinated with detailed photography. “You have no idea how many beautiful patterns exist in cartilage,” he recalls fondly. He would bring this passion to Goose Pond, photographing the evolution of the farm throughout the years. “Like all photographers, I collected these pictures,” he explains. “My boys began to ask me, ‘What are you going to do with all of these photos?’”
He pauses - and then as a reply, “I have a granddaughter.” Rudolf would make a book for her.
“I started to put it together without any major intentions.” As with most art, however - as the project was pursued, the book began to take on a life of its own. Rudolf soon found himself engulfed once again in the field of research, only this time - it was that of his own home. Each photo was thoroughly documented with information regarding species and origin - “I learned a lot. Every animal has an English and Latin name.” - while the doctor’s own voice added warmth and humor to the pages.
Without realizing, the surgeon, now in his mid 70s, had assumed a new title: publisher. “I did everything myself, except the editing - which I heavily participated in.” He sighs, exasperated. “It’s very hard work.”
Rudolf’s editor, Robin Henry, of Hagerstown, also provided its artistic design. “I have to give her extra credit,” says Rudolf. “It has her heart in it.”
Shortly following its first printing of 960 copies, My Farm at Goose Pond has already reached the shelves of local book shops such as Books and Things in Hagerstown’s Longmeadow Shopping Center, and the book has piqued the interest of a certain state park. However, Rudolf notes that the most difficult aspect of the book’s journey came after its release. “It is colossally difficult to sell books,” he says. “There are no small bookstores anymore. And the big chains won’t talk to little publishers.” To get the word out, Rudolf has entered the initial stages of setting up a web site to promote the book. With that, he exclaims, come new difficulties. “We have to set it up so that people who are looking for this type of book can find it.” The problem lies in the “search system,” he says. “You can search for ‘gray foxes,’ but the book isn’t about gray foxes. It’s not about birds or farming or snakes...” My Farm encompasses all of these things, and more.
When faced with the tribulations of the publishing world, it’s nice to have others to confide in. “Oh, here are our friends, back at the house,” he lights up, as a gander of geese casually cross the driveway into his backyard. “I’m happy they’re here. I thought they might have deserted us.”
“When they’re in the mood, they come here and speak to you. If you chase them away, then they tell you what they really think of you,” he laughs.
“Everyone is happy here,” he grins. “Everybody should have this chance. It’s the picture of perfect happiness.”
“This is how it can be for all living creatures like those on our farm - if we could live in peace and make it easier for each other.”
To order a copy of My Farm at Goose Pond: Shenandoah Valley by Rudolf Lemperg, M.D., PhD, call 304-263-5175 or e-mail Rlemperg@pocketmail.com.