Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Growing Pains

Well folks, the time has come to pack it up and move things on out of this little blogspot where we started chronicling our ridiculous journey several years ago.  The No Name Farm/Ranch finally got its identity in order - mostly - and it was time to give her a proper website!  From now on, all blog posts will live at the new farm website, a space I hope to frequent much, much more often.  And I hope you will too.  Expect to see a lot more posts about the daily stuff, some recipes that focus on using seasonal ingredients from the farm and from local farmers, interviews and introductions of other small farmers and ranchers, and an obnoxious amount of animal pictures.  From the new website you can follow us on facebook, instagram, and twitter - and I hope you will.  So come on over to our new home and say hello:  www.txbeetree.com

Monday, May 27, 2013

A Slow Dance

Three week ago Jer sent a feeble text message on a Sunday night from the edge of a soccer field, somewhere in San Antonio.  “Hurt.  Achilles tendon torn I think."  I read the message three times and then called him to explain what a seriously stupid joke he was telling.  But it was, actually, true.  And one surgery later it looks as if he will be effectively off his feet for a few months and out of commission for any heavy work for a year.  It is a terrible injury but a particular blow for someone whose life revolves almost entirely around the use of his Achilles tendon.  The last several weeks have required a shift of some duties around here, and it's true that we're all capable of more when it's necessary.  It's not pleasant but it's possible.  I also have a very deep and newfound respect for my own tendons, both of which I look down and thank daily for all they do.  Have you thanked your Achilles tendons lately?  Your legs?  Your hands and arms?  Health: don't take that stuff for granted.  

The morning that Jer went in for surgery, the post office called: my delivery of 50 baby chicks, ordered months ago and all but forgotten after the accident - were chirping away at the post office and needed to be picked up immediately.  Before loading the patient into the car for the hospital trip, I ran into town and picked up the box of peeps, one-day-old bundles of fluff on stick legs.  Deposited them into a brooder with food and water and left for the day.  They've been a quiet addition here in the background of all the daily chores, sprouting wings and practicing flight, entering into those awkward three weeks that compromise the Chicken Teenage Days.  They're an added chore during a time when my chores have doubled due to Jer's injury, but there's just something about chickens that always feel promising and hopeful.  Like planting tomato plants.  Lots can go wrong, but if all goes right, then the effort is always worth any trouble.  So I’ve grumbled through the daily water cleanings, dodged a rogue chick scurrying under my foot in absolute panic and fear.  Chickens have a way of giving benign situations a sense of terminal, apocalyptic tragedy – it’s part of what makes them so hilarious. 

In an effort to give Jer more mobility in the coming months and year, I finally caved into his previously unjustified “need” for a golf cart to better move around the property.  Losing the ability to walk finally did justify the purchase, and he’s been able to get out of the wheelchair and off the front porch, an area he would slowly wheel around like a caged animal, the sight of which tugged at my tiniest heartstrings.  Newly mobile, I rarely find him inside and catch glimpses of the cart through the trees, his crutches perched on a gun rack across the front of the thing, just above the steering wheel.  This week he was able to check footage on the wildlife camera he keeps aimed down at the pond, and a few images were alarming.  One evening last week the pond was visited by a beautiful bobcat that we both mistook for an exotic cat (“Leopard!” Jer shouted, while I screamed “It’s a cheetah!”  Had anyone been within earshot they would have patted our heads sadly and given us a geography lesson).  Two nights ago another cat appeared on the camera, this one looked eerily similar to a young mountain lion – a predator known to roam this part of the county.  The type of animal that will haunt the dreams of any rancher in the wee hours of morning.  

So it should have been no surprise, and certainly cannot be coincidence, that this morning we found our beloved little Atlas killed.  His death appears to be the work of a cat but there’s no way to be certain.  Early in the morning I heard Madaline mooing in a strange, mournful way from the trees but she never came when called and I did not have the wherewithal to see what upset her.  It wasn’t until Boss curled up against the pasture gate alone, bleating soft and low that it was clear something was horribly wrong.  The kind of wrong that causes the throat to tighten, cold fingers squeeze hard on the gut.  I hoped Atlas was sleeping when we found him, but I knew immediately he was not.  Now we are left with many decisions: Boss is not safe in this pasture right now without the protection of guardian dogs.  We felt that the bucks’ constant proximity to the cows and donkeys would keep them safe; an underestimation of predator’s aggression – obviously.  We cannot put Boss into the goat pasture without the risk of breeding with the baby girls or the milking girls.  Tonight, he will be locked into the kidding pen with Willy as a companion, with the Pyrenees nearby for protection.  Regardless of what happens next it’s clear that the large pasture will eventually require its own guardian protection, and I’m convinced that Pyrenees are the best solution. 

Until then, it’s likely that my heart is broken, or at least a little battered and chipped at the edges.  It’s not just that I loved Atlas because of his gentle soul and sweet demeanor, but that I feel responsible when these things happen.  We are, ultimately, responsible for their protection so it’s a loss but also a failure.  Recently a friend commented that when they see pictures of the farm posted on facebook or instagram they imagine it’s as idyllic as a Disney cartoon, with birds singing on my shoulder and Bambi emerging from the woods. I guess it can appear that way from the outside looking in.  But today is a stoic reminder that here, like all places, there is life and there is death.  There are predators and there are prey.  Quaint stories and beautiful pictures protect no one and nothing from cycles more ancient than all of us.  “I’m not cut out for this,” I cried into Jeremy’s shoulder as he tried to shield me from the little goat.  But I made myself look and forced myself to remember that risks are taken to get here.  So hearts get bruised but also fill up so big, big they could burst.  

On Monday, Chula, who I hadn’t seen for a day, ambled slowly from the trees followed by a tiny, prancing, baby donkey.  I suspected she was pregnant but wasn’t sure – the baby donkey providing solid evidence my suspicions were correct.  Because of Atlas’s death I spent more time than usual in the pasture this morning.  For the first time since Monday, the baby donkey approached me, slowly, slowly, his tiny, new hooves solid as granite, clicked on rock, the quick dart of a tongue, almost imperceptible beneath the fluff of a brand new muzzle.  He sniffed me gingerly, tossed his head and then galloped in circles around Chula, stiff legged, high-necked, gliding across the broomweed.  Just as we lay to rest one little life, we start again with another, the stark contrast between life and death so harsh and apparent out here, always trembling in balance.  The type of contrast I rarely considered prior to The Farm.  Was it better before all this?  I have to wonder that, crouched on my knees to comfort a mournful animal, knowing the answer before the question’s even done.   

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Rinse, Repeat

Anyone who tells you that milking your darling animal at 5am is idyllic and wonderful - is lying.  Straight up.

I can think of a lot of incredible ways to spend those graceful hours between 5am and 7am, where the world is wrapped in a dewy blanket of early morning.  When all the littlest things are out creeping and wandering.  When the moon's passed completely over the liquid midnight hours into the haze of earliest morning and just about anything, anything is possible on this new day.  The most incredible way I can think of spending those tepid hours is, frankly, asleep.  Tucked into my cozy bed and snoring through a dream about sprouting wings and flying over hills or drinking cups of liquid chocolate. 

It's untruthful to paint images of skipping forth from the house in pigtails and checkered blouses, your rosy cheeks and twinkling eyes glowing at the prospect of living on a farm!  Oh yes!  Lucky you!!  Clicking your heels as you approach the tidy barn where the animals bleat happily and smell like furry little roses.

That's a lie, again.  Straight. Up.

Let me tell you how it really works, because if we're not keeping things real, then we're doing a disservice to the true beauty of the situation.  Once the alarm smacks you into wakeful dreaming and after you have rolled over to fumble through the dance of turning the damn buzzer off, you will lie on your back momentarily, rubbing your eyes with the forlorn reality that yes, actually, you must wake up.  Stumble through the darkness, if you didn't have the foresight to lay out the dirty farm clothes the night before.  You must trip over the snoring labrador who, frankly, has no plans to accompany you on your morning rituals ("man's best friend," my a$$).  As you are nearly blind without spectacles, you must grope across the inky darkness of a black room in the wee hours and feel around for clothing, stubbing your toe on the bed for good measure, just to re-affirm that you're alive and still feel pain.  If you're very lucky, the new precious angel-puppy, not yet house-trained, has left a gift for you smack in the middle of the floor.  A present deposited in the deepest hours of night, when you were dreaming of flying and chocolate.  When the notion of 5am wakefulness was a distant reality.

Somehow you dress.  Falling into the hallway, your toe still throbbing, you enter the living area and lean against the wall momentarily where it's possible you might crumple into a pile and take a nap.  Suddenly, above the snoring dogs and hum of the refrigerator, you hear a bleating sound waft through the woods that shroud the house.  Then the high and steady call of a whippoorwill.  The haze that clouds your vision is thick, but it's clearing, and as the bleating outside gets louder - more frantic - you remember why you've gotten this far into the hallway.  The ridiculousness of your situation gaining some semblance of meaning again.  There are little animals out there who, because of your planning and scheming, are pacing with bags full of milk.  It's your fault, and only you can fix it.  This propels you out the back door.

Emerging outside, damply matted bed head, sticking off your scalp in right angles, it's likely you don't fit the bill of a precious dairy maid - the vision that may have played into your decision to get this far in the first place.  Animal husbandry and farming look sort of like this: matted hair, dirt crusted in your nose and the corners of your mouth to match the sleep crusted up in your eyes, mismatched clothes not washed in a week, and a manure and milk splattered jacket.  Not your sexiest moment, but also somehow, your sexiest moment.  It's confusing.

Now you're striding towards the barn, carrying the empty pails, sanitized overnight, silver and gleaming.  Maybe there are bowls of dog food gripped in the other hand for your guard crew.  Maybe a bottle of milk for the animal babies still on the bottle.  You glance out at the view, suddenly caught by the enormity of the beauty that's just - there.  Just sitting out there all night long, revealed in these early minutes of morning.  The resentment you felt when the alarm screamed and the pain in your toe, and the sleep in your eyes start to turn a little - just a little - into tiny pangs of gratitude.  You push through the mushy feelings and busy yourself with the work of chores.  Filling the trough of the milk stand with feed, arranging your towels to clean the udders, tucking away the dog bowls so they're ready for feeding when you're done milking.  Hang the pail.  Stretch the fingers.

As you lead the first animal from her pen, probably the herd queen, given first rights to the milking stand - clarity starts to settle in.  The whippoorwills sing from nests at tree bases, the hoot owls gossip all around you.  A coyote barks at the pond.  The animal is now settled into the stand, eating her grain happily.  It's cold still, and you rest your head into her side where the smell of the beast rises up and warms you in that familiar way that maybe smells like childhood - depending on how you grew up.

That's the moment, every morning now, when I've shut my eyes and milk by feel, with the sound of a rumen working against my ear, the dusty scent of musk and hay consume the senses - that's the moment.  It's like taking the sacrament there, on the little wood stand, bent over an animal, your hands work like machines cranking, the levers spinning, the milk hitting the pail with a steady hiss - you are connected to thousands of others crouched over their creatures in worship at this very moment.  United in this solitary endeavor that, inexplicably, forced you from the comfort of your covers at an unholy hour to complete such a holy and ancient act.  I can't articulate why we do it.  Does the milk taste good? Sure, it's great! But I can buy it from a store.  There's no point dissecting what's sacred to each of us, so long as we recognize it's sacred.  You complete the task, go back inside, clean the equipment, take a shower, get on with things for the day until it's time again - 12 hours later.  Rinse, repeat.  Every morning, every day; a routine that's not a burden but a blessing for reasons I can't explain and won't attempt to decipher.

Do it.

If you think shoving two lives into one is impossible, then let me assure you, it is possible.
If you believe sacrificing one life for another is the only option, then let me assure you, there are probably other options.
If you think the secrets you scribble about from those deepest dreams, those most sacred corners of the mind that convention screams are "unrealistic" will be legible in 20 years, let me assure you, they fade and tatter.
If you read a person from a first impression, then you're missing the story.
We all have something else pulsing beneath the surface.

I met a woman who dreams of farming but reality limits her space to a city apartment.  She researched her options and joined a community garden where she spends every evening now with both hands in the dirt, growing plants, meeting neighbors, and setting roots down where she's planted for now.  She takes pictures of her growing tomatoes and marks their progress like we mark children's growth on door frames.  

This life is short.  Make it glorious.  Spill your guts out into the world and make an effort, every day, to take a chance towards what you're dreaming.  Don't trip over your own excuses or justify the obstacles.  Just make an effort, however small.
I tip my hat to you for trying. 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

10,000 Charges

Without much ceremony, we acquired a beehive.  We ordered the hive back in the fall, fearing it would be impossible to find one come springtime.  There are lots of options when bee shopping but the other choices (nucs, bag-o-bees, taming a bee tree hive, etc) required too much skill.  So we paid the extra money and picked up a thriving hive through Bee Weaver Apiaries.  Despite our grand plans to be well-trained beekeepers prior to bringing one home, we hadn't even attended a class before we picked it up.  In fact, Jer paid extra for priority shipping on some hive tools and bee suits three days before the hive arrived.  It's been that kind of spring around here where the time gets away and suddenly the best laid plans are never executed.

Bee pick-up was scheduled at Austin's favorite urban farmstead, Boggy Creek Farm, and we drove up in Buster the busted farm truck, backed him in, and they tossed a little blue hive in the bed.  Although the truck hardly moved with the weight of them, something imperceptible shifted.  I heard a faint buzz beyond the truck window and I quickly reached down and rolled it up as one friendly bee whizzed by on his way to work.  We shared a wary, wordless exchange and looked in the rear view mirror.  Yet again, we were starting from the beginning with an under-researched endeavor.  "So," Jer said slowly, "that's it?" in his now often used "oh crap" tone of voice.  "That's it!" I attempted to enthusiastically pat his knee.  If I could learn goats, Jer could learn bees.  We got this, I thought confidently before frantically swatting at my neck where paranoia made me believe bees were crawling down my shirt.  So, as is usual for us, not the most impressive start.

That was last weekend.  That was how we started with bees.  Luckily, we had the wherewithal to enroll in a beekeeping class for the following weekend and already picked a location for the bee yard.  The area was ready and waiting for the hive when we got home.  Aside from setting it gently onto its resting spot, we did little with them this week, hoping to build bravery and knowledge through the class.  I've read one book and skimmed others, and Jeremy managed to speed read a bee book this week, order more of the essential equipment, and we both attended class on Saturday with questions.  During the introductions it was evident that we were the only fools who purchased a hive prior to taking a class, and I noticed our instructor's eyes widen slightly when he learned we were "keeping" bees already.  It seems irresponsible, probably, the way we generally approach our farm acquisitions (and, hell, even the farm), but since we both succumb to procrastination I've learned that jumping in can sometimes force your hand a little.  For better or worse.

After an overview of the hive structure, hive pests and predators, and the basics of beekeeping, we were each handed a suit and encouraged to meet the bees.  We felt fairly bulletproof in the heavy canvas suits although the hive swarmed and buzzed around us once the lid was removed.  The sensation of standing amidst a few thousand bees is unsettling regardless of the armor you're wearing.  Our instructor, Mark Gretchen of Gretchen Bee Ranch, calmly and casually began inspecting frames, talking us through what we saw, urging us to identify drones vs. worker bees vs. the queen.  Suddenly, pure fascination drowned the oppressive buzz from the curious bees keeping guard over the hive.  For the first time, I started to understand how it is that one might be consumed by beekeeping and by bees themselves; truly the most industrious and clever little insects (aside from, say, ants).  Obviously our fascination began with the bee tree when the size and production level of that wild hive was exposed inside the hollow tree.  But seeing domestic bees work neatly and carefully inside their man-made box, understanding their wordless but efficient communication, their vital contribution to - well - everything and knowing that at the end of it all you get to extract the honey.  It's more then I could take.  Yesterday, I was truly in the midst of bee heaven.

Armed with resources, some (gorgeous) handmade beeswax candles, and that intangible ignition of bravery, we came home and donned our suits.  Jeremy fired up the smoker, and we finally tromped down to our own little hive, terrified they had swarmed and left sometime during their week of neglect.  After carefully prying off the lid, we finally met our new charges - 10,000 of the busiest creatures we now care for.  The bee yard is down near the vegetable garden in our front acreage, tucked back under a cove of trees.  I was shocked to realize that a bee highway now extends straight from the hive out to the front pasture where wildflowers are in full bloom.  Not only was their path to and from the hive straight, direct, and clear; I literally heard the zoom and flutter of wings as they whizzed past my face.  It's essential to check on the health of a hive, yes, but yesterday I realized how much work they do.  Don't be a bother to your bees, I learned.  Their job is more important then mine, in many ways.

This week was tragic, heartbreaking, and devastating for many, whether viewed from a distance or experienced first-hand.  Watching Jer lift the frames covered in thousands of bees forming perfect wax hexagons, creating honey, capping combs, feeding the brood - a choreography so ancient it's written about in the oldest texts - was, to be honest, life affirming.  None of us can completely silence the noise of our realities, whatever it may be, but growing and tending and being rooted in these natural rituals is a solid reminder that we're just a small part of an intricate system that basically got it right the first time.  Without much intervention from us, the world keeps turning, photosynthesis happens, the bees pollinate the plants and turn pollen into honey.  Like everything we've planted here at the farm, they've already started re-teaching me some basic principles that get forgotten along the way.  Don't be a bother to the bees and all the natural systems.
Or to each other.     


Monday, April 15, 2013


I cheated on the farm today - went and looked at some other land.  It's what I do.  Without even being one year into things I see how easily this place could be bursting with animals and vegetables and minerals.  Well maybe not that last one, and probably not even that second one either since I have yet to turn this brown thumb green.  But the innate, intense, inherent desire for more wide open or even densely forested space sits eternal within me.  I just can't quiet the little beast.  So occasionally I do a casual search for places in this area -morbid curiosity is what it is, actually - whether for affirmation or to my detriment.  Never has such a gem emerged as I found recently, and oh how it's troubling to covet what you can't have.

Regardless, I needed a peek.  Just down the road, around a bend, is a 100 acre wood for sale.  It's stocked with ponds and barns, a little old 1940's bungalow - the type of house I hoped to move out here in the beginning.  The property's been unplucked for a century at least - longer?  The old growth makes me think it's Texas, untouched, and absolutely feral.  We trekked through woods, along the creek beds, tossed some stones into the pond.  I sat in one of the many old wooden swings that dangle off the arms of oak trees.  I showed up in my cowboy boots but the realtor, a sweet woman who never sells country property, was walking sock-less into high grasses.  In shorts.  I finally pulled her back gently and explained the concern over snakes and such.  "SNAKES?!" she gasped, hand to her chest, suddenly breathless, "but we're so close to Austin!!"  Yes, but - I explained - they generally pay no attention to city limit signs.  I remembered my first visit to our land, in a cotton skirt and flip flops; the realtor eyed me suspiciously.  He was concerned about my safety, and the poorly chosen attire made my subsequent land purchase dubious, at best.

Driving home, the windows were rolled all the way down.  I had the dial tuned to a country station, music I never publicly enjoyed before, but all the songs about tractors and trucks aren't really stereotypes anymore.  Hell, they're sort of relatable!  (You know, I really DO like cold beer on a Friday night.  And jeans that fit just right.  I mean - truly.)  The wind blowing through the car kicked up small funnels of alfalfa, remnants from my last trip to Callahans.  I got out of the car with shoulders burned from the sun, bits of hay in my hair, a rogue cactus thorn on my boot tip.  The visit was worth the memory of standing under an ancient oak tree, looking out across a 30 acre prairie like it was our place, a big rugged canvas I could paint five different ways.  But the car brought me home, right here, to this slice of the pie that remains the sweetest, albeit, toughest decision we ever made.  No, I can't purchase a 100 acre parcel, but I'll be damned if I won't scheme and plan over the thing.  That's the sort of thinking that brought us here in the first place, proof that the practice of dreaming big gets you somewhere.  I'll take it.    

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Suburban Sundays

Our cows took a vacation on Easter morning.  We'd put them into the front pasture the night before, allowing them access to the grass buffet they drooled over for weeks through the fence.  A week earlier, Jeremy installed an incredibly swanky and impressive electronic gate.  You know the kind: it requires either a gate code or a remote opener to operate.  Once you're inside the pasture, the gate will "only open" (says Jeremy) when it detects the motion of metal as in - a car.  It will not "under any circumstance" (says Jeremy) open for anything else.  Mmmmm.  Hmmm.


Confident with these assurances I was cool leaving the cows out.  They've never tested any fences and had plenty of delicious grass to keep them happy and fed for quite some time.  So it was a teensy bit alarming when they never showed up at the trough for breakfast, a ritual they have yet to miss.  In fact, Maddie Cow is a precise alarm clock should we - on the rare occasion - ever sleep in.  That cow will not miss a meal unless she's found something better.  On the other side of the fence.  Down the driveway.  Across the street.  On a neighboring ranch.

Needless to say, Easter morning was spent hunting cattle instead of eggs.  We spent a good long time getting acquainted with the sheriff's department who helped with the search, and with the neighbors who contributed grain and buckets to the cause, who drove up and down our road looking for a tiny cow and her tinier calf.  Losing livestock is a foolproof method for meeting the neighborhood.  In the end, our tiny cattle were found mosying casually from the wooded ranch across the way.  They were herded into another property, safely enclosed behind a shut gate and I was called on to come fetch them with lead ropes and grain.  It was a little nostalgic, actually, to be strolling down our country road, two lead ropes draped over my shoulder, a bucket full of grain - waving at neighbors - stopping to chat with the sherriff deputies to explain that, no sir, I don't need help - the cows are found.  Reminiscent of previous, cunning escapes from the original three.  Such a stupendously different way to spend a Sunday morning compared to years past.

On my long walk from the barn to collect the cows, I thought a lot about the vast differences.  I imagined the pre-farm Jenna lounging in a robe on the couch on a Sunday morning.  Hell, it was 9am - I probably would have still been in bed.  Such an existence sounded luxurious and relaxing, I thought this as I casually stepped over road kill, as I eyed the brush alongside the road for rattlers.  Then a truck drove past, the man behind the wheel tipped his cowboy hat, not bothering for a second look at the woman in rubber boots, wrapped in lead lines, carrying grain.  Just another Sunday morning out here.  Through a stand of trees and behind fencing I saw my two cows, kicking and mooing: cow joy.  I sighed heavily, walked through the gate, shook the bucket.  They came home safely.  But they're not allowed in the front pasture again until we figure out how exactly they tripped the electronic gate.

One week later, I stood in the back of the truck, chucking a load of mulch onto the garden.  Hope springs eternal when it comes to me and gardening.  Actually buying and applying mulch represents a monumental, notable effort on my part.  I followed this event by lining the new flower bed in front of the house with a row of pretty rocks picked up from around the property - pulled from a pile I collected over the course of 5 years tossing them into the tractor loader as Jeremy drove the thing around behind me.  Compared to Easter, this Sunday felt incredibly conventional.  Gardening!  Flower beds!  Mowing the lawn!  It could have been any weekend, circa 2007 - just on a grander scale.  It beats the heck out of a cow search and rescue party - even though I find that preferable to lounging in my bathrobe at 10am.

 Spring is a busy season in any backyard, but especially on a farm.  The animals seem to wake up overnight along with the vegetation, and the new variety of tempting treats can cause digestive upsets in the sometimes hardy/sometimes delicate goats.  The snakes I have forgotten since October are lurking again.  I nearly stepped on a coiled rattler last week who was sunning itself on the driveway and was startled to be awoken by the vibrations of goat hooves and a curious, sniffing puppy.  Which reminds me - have I mentioned the puppy?  Hugo hardly fills the void or heartbreak of losing Lu, but he's a new little life bouncing and jumping around the place - and that's something I can't live without.

A big order of chicks arrive at the beginning of May.  A new little goat comes home this weekend when the bucklings go to their new families.  When friends come for a visit and we hang out into the wee hours, it's hard to explain how accutely a late night will impact the following day which will likely be full to bursting with dirt and manure, water buckets, feed hauling and constantly caring, caring, caring for something.  Even on a small scale, I understand that farming is a little like parenting a place.  No more sleeping in or carefree late nights.  And, not that I miss them, but no more suburban Sundays.