Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Standing Sentinal

Jeremy only missed a few critical points in conveying the story. He forgot to tell you what it feels like to have chickens tucked under each arm while wearing a bathrobe and flip flops on a pre-dawn, 40 degree morning. He didn't mention the incomprehensible email sent to my bosses at 6a.m. explaining why I might not make the 7:30a.m. meeting. He might also have failed to mention that the story in my email was, at this point, viewed as hilarious by said bosses who read it out loud to staff, clients, anyone who would listen. So, when I finally stumbled into the conference, I was met with every chicken and raccoon comment, joke, and advice imaginable. My phone call to Academy Sports and Outdoors to verify that they do actually sell fox urine only increased the day-long public ridicule. I also think he forgot to mention the final conference session I attended in which the presenter opened with the classic comment: "Hey - aren't you the woman with the dead chicken and the fox pee?" Of course, I was aiming to make a more professional impression on clients and colleagues, but this will have to do for now.

Additionally, there was no commentary on Boo's health, which is fine save the odd wound we discovered Sunday evening near his leg. Jeremy managed a trip to the land last night to check on our patient before heading out for the raccoon repellent. When it rains....

And finally, the biggest omission from yesterday's saga was something Jeremy didn't witness during the early morning nap he snuck in before work. Once Eleanor was removed and the girls were settled, the two lowest ranking hens in the backyard pecking order (Graciela and Dita von Teese. Don't question the chicken names, people) flew from their roosts onto the ground. As if on command, each set off in opposite directions along the fenceline, marching out and defining their territory. Stomp, stomp, stomp, stop, turn, cock head to listen, shake feathers to look twice her size....stomp, stomp, stomp. They marched for two hours until the sun rose while the other ladies slept off their shock. Two little soldiers standing sentinel throughout the remainder of the dark morning.
I already knew my life was becoming more mixed up and poorly defined the further we delved into the land/homesteading projects. I accept that our choices have been, in many cases, unconventional. And I see the humor in it. But it's lonely to feel like it's just the two of us sitting at computers by day and patching up donkeys at night. Which is why, yet again, Jenna Woginrich of Cold Antler Farm has been such a great discovery. Her recent article published in Mother Earth News sums it all up, makes us feel a little less crazy, and puts us in a category with a few others. If ever there was any doubt, yesterday proved that we've both got a terrible case of Barnheart.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Go With Grace, Sweet Spirit

We're down to 8 chickens now, due to our first predatorial attack last night (or should I say this morning...this very early morning). I don't count the 1 baby chick that Romeo swallowed whole or the two silkies that didn't know how to play with our big dogs. This morning about 5am, Jenna and I both jumped out of bed to the sound of some screeching and the egg song. While we're bumping into each other grabbing robes and shoes to check out the raucous, Jenna flips on the flood light just in time to see a raccoon wrestling with Eleanor, one of our Brahmas. She sprints outside like a crazy person and chases the raccoon off, but the damage had been done. There were white feathers all over the yard, so it looked like Eleanor put up a fight (at least that's what we're telling ourselves). But we had more immediate problems. At least one of the remaining chickens was doing her amazingly loud egg song right there at 5:15 in the morning. Jenna tried picking the loud one up, we tried throwing food out, all to no avail. At one point, we both just stopped and looked at each other wondering what the hell to do? Jenna's upset because she just lost a pet and needed a full night sleep before her long day schmoozing at a conference, and I'm just waiting for the disgruntled neighbor to start throwing things at us. Eventually, the chickens calm back down, Jenna heads back in to try to calm her nerves, and I dispose of Eleanor. It's about 5:45 at this point. Jenna's too wired/upset to go back to sleep so she camps out on the couch with her computer researching raccoon deterrents while glancing out the window at the remaining chickens that are basking in the full 200W shining down on them from all of our floodlights on and aimed in their direction. I doze for about an hour and a half before I get up to start another day. During the day, I received periodic updates from Jenna telling me of things we can do tonight for the chickens. After some research and help from her mother, she gives me a shopping list for tonight's preventative measures. After we both got home this evening, it was after dark so the chickens were roosted on top of the coop. Jenna gently placed each one into the coop/nest boxes and we closed the door on the coop for the first time in about year and a half. After that, we doused a couple of wicks with recently purchased fox urine and posted those at the corners of the coops. I'm pretty sure the ladies will be pretty pissed off in the morning when they realize they've been locked in, but at least they should be safe through the night. I guess this will be our new evening ritual. In retrospect, we've been pretty lucky with our lack of attacks from neighborhood cats, OUR dogs, etc. Hopefully, we can go another year and a half without incident.

RIP Eleanor (2008-2010)

The Running of the "Mini" Cows...

...the lesser known sister event to the one held in Pamplona. While not quite as dramatic as the more famous version, this is far more convenient to attend. Additionally, this local event happens every time we feed them, instead of once a year like the over-hyped original. Give me hopping minis over pissed off bulls any day.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Done Before I Started

You know that term "contractor fatigue?" No? I'm pretty sure that's because I just made it up. However, I'm sure there's a website, blog, non-fiction book, and scholarly journal devoted entirely to this subject matter. If these resources do not exist, I encourage anyone who has experienced such a condition to start documenting it. That way, novice home builders will be able to accurately set their expectations when venturing out into the murky, ambiguous world that is Contractors.

I just picked up the recent issue of Dwell, a magazine focused on modern and green architecture and design. It's a consisently cool magazine but this is not why I grabbed the new issue. Rather, an article entitled "Contractors 101: Everything You Should Know," caught my eye. And by caught I mean it made my hands start to sweat and my cheeks get all flushed and I felt a little dizzy because I thought that maybe finally, finally I had found the answers to the nagging questions that lately keep me up at night. What...what?!...is wrong with contractors? And how....how?!...can I build a home without one?

I'll save you some time. The article doesn't answer the questions. It does, however, bring some much needed levity and humor to my current situation and the situation that I am certain millions of others have gone through or are currently experiencing. I am painstakingly crafting each sentence here in order to avoid incredibly crass statements in regards to this profession. In fact, I am trying to be "mature" and "rational" by acknowledging that my limited experience with these folks is not representative of the entire group. And I am entirely certain it is not. With that said - I'm holding an open call starting here on this puny blog. I am calling forth any and all contractors who believe they are not associated with the negative labels I have given them (unreliable, slightly dishonest, flaky, unreliable, flaky, and very unreliable). If you are out there and most certainly do not fall into this category - if you are willing to take on this project - if what I said about your profession pisses you off and you want to prove me wrong - well, please do get in touch!! From the bottom of my heart, I absolutely cannot wait to hear from you.

In order to avoid specifics, let's just say the process of obtaining bids from contractors hasn't been, er,....easy. Perhaps my expectations were out of wack. In light of the economy I expected our building plans would be happily embraced by all builders, that word would spread that someone was building, that people would line up at the door, that birds would sing and flowers would grow, and that I would be at one with the contractors. What came to pass was all of this - only - completely opposite. My phone is intact. My email appears to be working. But..nothing. I have come to accept that the builders either do not want to build or simply lack the ability to truthfully communicate their personal timelines and intentions.

I started out being pretty damn sweet on the phone. I wasn't trying to impress anyone but did want to appear as an un-fussy potential client with a simple project and a can-do attitude. The initial "interviews" consists of 20-25 minutes in which a spiel is given by the builder, promises are made, hopes are raised, dreams are born. It's the follow-through that seems to get them. Six contractors later, my heart is broken. I'm starting to feel like I got stood up for a dance. Now, my phone calls go something like this: "My name's Jenna. I want you to build a house for me. No, no, you must wait your turn to speak. For now, I will do the talking. I've got this much money. I've got this much land, and I'm out of patience. If you say you're gonna show up - show up. If you're not gonna show up - call, email, or text. If you do none of these things, that's fine, but I will find you and publicly humiliate you. Thank you for your time."

Sigh. Pretty good for an amateur, no? No. Trial and error has taught me the correct questions to ask and that a certain level of pushiness is necessary, if not expected, when going through this process. This isn't the time for polite conversation. It's more about stating clearly a "No BS" policy, providing a budget, and looking to see who's left standing.

And just to keep things relevant to the overall subject matter of this blog, I give you an update of epic proportions: Chula let me examine her teeth this weekend. How about that?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Proof is in the Pudding...

...or in the Google Earth images. Let me just start by saying, technology is awesome! Everything about it, and all kinds too. Electrical, mechanical, I don't care. The tractor is one very mechanical technology that continues to impress me, as I've indicated with numerous previous posts. I recently started playing with couple of newer (to me) technologies in the form of GPS and Google Earth. My recent acquisition of the GPS enabled iPhone made me start to wonder what all I can do with this. I realize I have just started to scratch the surface of the potential, but the little bit I've played with has given me a new perspective on our project out there. I started by looking for some GPS tracking apps and was recommended the MotionX app. With this, I was able to walk around the land and mark certain spots. Then I overlayed these spots on a Google Earth image to get a much better feel for location and orientation on the land. I had started messing with this a couple of weeks ago, but got sidetracked. When I revisited it yesterday, I stumbled upon the fact that Google Earth had updated their images and I was now looking at an aerial photo of our land from November 2009 while the previous photos were from before we purchased the land. Now you can actually see the REAL progress being made out there!

This little discovery was very exciting and very rewarding (I'm not going to address the potential privacy concerns in this discussion, but instead focus on the coolness of this information). You can even see the RV parked along the southern fence line and the tractor just northwest of that.

How freakin' cool! My next step was to create a barn and house in Google Sketch-Up and then place that onto my Google Earth image so I can better visualize size and orientation. I made some headway yesterday, but had a hard time with placement. I'll get to that later and post updated pics. Anyway, that's my "technology is cool" rant. Thanks for bearing with me.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Ice Ice Baby!

No, I'm not singing that 80's hit, I'm referring to the hard substance that we don't see too much here in central Texas (at least outside of our freezer). Well, we certainly saw our share last weekend when that particularly strong cold front blew through here. News reports indicated it got as cold as 19 degrees in our area, but I had friends and family report thermometer readings as low as 13 degrees. Whoa! We are simply not cut out for that kind of cold weather. Our cold weather fighting methods consist of setting up heat lamps and wrapping pipes with socks. Beyond that, we're completely lost. What's really entertaining is talking to my colleagues that are from up north. They get a kick out of watching us southerners scramble around and fret about these "cold snaps". For example, earlier this winter we dropped below the freezing mark and actually had some snow flurries...again, very exciting. This was happening during work, so a few co-workers went out on the balcony and starting taking pictures of the snow with their phones. I was walking by with a friend from Nebraska, who immediately took out his phone and started taking pictures of the people taking pictures. He said his friends back home would love this. I digress. What I really wanted to report on, with regards to the sub-freezing weather, was the nice surprises we found when tending to our various animals. It started in the morning with the chickens. To be honest, we weren't sure how many un-frozen chickens we were going to have in the morning since most of them continued to sleep on top of the coop in the elements. Jenna set out a shop lamp on top of the coop with them, but with the minimal heat of the lamp simply escaping into the air instead of being captured in some enclosed room, this was an effort in futility and was really to make Jenna feel like she tried. Regardless, we were pleasantly surprised when all 9 chickens were running around the yard in the morning. They were being especially loud which normally indicates they are out of food or something. Well, it turns out they weren't out of food, but they were out of liquid water. The baby pool we use had a solid inch of ice on top. I was really surprised to see how thick of a layer had formed. So, Jenna heated up some water and grabbed a big stick and went to town. Unfortunately, we had to keep going out about every hour to re-break up the ice.

A little bit later that morning, we headed out to the land to meet with a contractor to start getting estimates on how much it was going to cost to prep the building site. So, armed with every jacket we owned and multiple pairs of gloves/hats/long underwears, we headed east. We met with the contractor and discussed some figures. When they left, we did our usual tour of the place and headed down to the pond to enjoy the morning tranquility. When we got to the pond, I was quite surprised to see the top of the water glistening. There was ice on the pond, too.

I really thought a larger body like that wouldn't start to freeze after 12 hours below freezing, but I was wrong. There was about 1/2" - 3/4" layer. I was relegated to the shoreline because of my bulk, but Jenna was able to walk out a little bit (in the very shallow areas). It was a very unique experience.

We spent the next 20 minutes forgetting how cold we were and regressed to our inner 12 year old selves. We started throwing rocks and sticks, with each toss eliciting a "whoa" and "cool" and "did you see that?". Yes, we're simple people. We went back home to warm up and came back out later that day to actually be productive. At that point, the pond had mostly thawed. Overall, it was a pretty exciting day for a couple of native Texans.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Tiniest Victories

If you haven't heard it yet - HAPPY NEW YEAR! And if you've heard it so many times that you want to take the new year and shove...well you know what I mean...but if you're in that camp, then sorry you had to hear it again. No matter how you feel about it, it's 2010. According to the Aztec calendar, this means we've got two years left. Make 'em count!

In honor of the new year, we spent the first day of 2010 at - you guessed it - the land. And it was a damn fine day, too. The prospect of some actual, tangible progess with the house planning re-invigorated both of us and Jeremy announced that we'd spend the day clearing the home site area; a spot that's been ignored for months, where we hang our heads when walked past, a gaping hole that seemed to lose purpose for a while. Suddenly, it deserved our attention and all of the trees cut in the area months ago that were left standing would now be pulled out, whisked away to fire piles, so that the whole area could finally take some shape. I was so excited that, for this one time only, I did not complain about a morning spent dragging trees and limbs backwards, up a hill. It was that big a deal.

Of course, I took a few breaks. First to have a chilly picnic by the pond. And second, to photograph Rooney who I found in the middle of the hay pile, taking advantage of the fact that the others were grazing somewhere.

Oh Rooney.

In the middle of his blissful gluttony he suddenly realized that he was absolutely and completely alone with The Human - an uspeakable horror for this tiny cow.

Before I realized what was happening, he sprang from the hay ring and bumped and slid down the road, frantically mooing along the way, "mmmoooooooooOOOoOOOaaaaAAAAHAHHDKFJDKJF!!!!!"

Suddenly, he heard something in the woods. He turned. "MOOOOWAAAAAAAA????"
He saw Seamus and headed towards him at top-Rooney-speed.
All was not lost.

Of course, I followed him, not because I condone the torment of miniature cattle, but because I find his wild, pissed off look when seeing me pretty hilarious. Click, click, click - I wasn't paying attention to my surroundings and focused only on the little cow when suddenly:

Chula appeared in the lens in search of carrots, apples, sweet feed, a piece of my shirt , a finger- anything that would come off of me when bitten. Turning to find this face in my face can be a bit unsettling. So I crept backwards (Donkey Rule #428: no fast movements) and took a look at the whole scene.

There was a time when standing here, along the back fence, was impossible without a machete and fairly heavy armor, since it was a tangle of cactus, mesquite, rusted metal...and now...

It's a narrow strip of pasture, hand cleared, the grass hand-seeded, the animals now grazing and using something that was before useless. It didn't happen in a day, not even close. It's only here now because of what we did piece by piece, one small project at a time. An afternoon here or there, a hot morning between breakfast and afternoon chores at our current house. I looked down the strip of land, at the donkeys, and then on my other side were the cows, eating the same grass we planted, on the same land we cleared.


This whole thing, whatever it is or ends up being, can't be done at once - this is clear. And that used to frustrate me like nothing else has ever frustrated me. But now I see that some things have to be broken down, done in pieces, taken apart. And when you do that you get a million, tiny little victories. Pretty satisfying, if you ask me.