Thursday, December 20, 2012

Tough Life

In honor of my last official day of work until JANUARY 2, 2013 (!!!!!!!!!), I thought it easier to show how I'll be spending the time off rather than explain.  That's right, picture me in a pile of sleeping or snoring goats for one full week.  An odd way to spend free time, perhaps, but also one of the best.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

At least it's not my car

Queen of the Rodeo

Kimberly and I exchanged concerned looks momentarily the day we came by to pick up Maddie and her little calf.  As expected, Maddie was (and remains) the sweetest and calmest cow I've ever met.  And also the most affectionate.  Her little calf, however, was a different story.  Regardless of her early upbringing around people, she tended towards acting more like a mini bucking bronco than calf, when given the opportunity.  She skittered away from both of us when Kimberly tried to catch her for loading into the trailer.  The whites of her eyes showed against eggplant fur, and she was breathing heavily.  But I wasn't too concerned with Rodeo's early, almost feral, behavior.  She was (and still is) nursing and had very little use for humans.  We brought her home and led her from the trailer on a lead rope.  For one whole hour she pulled against the rope like it was on fire, her bottom stuck straight up in the air, hooves dug into the ground, head tossing, those white ringed eyes wide open, and snorting dramatically as if her life were in danger.  To be fair, how would she know the difference between impending death and the beginning of a wonderful relationship with new owners?  After all, I remind myself with all my animals daily, she is a cow - she cannot know the difference (yet).

Since that first day we quickly learned that the secret to all animals' hearts is also the key to unlock miss Rodeo Queen.  Eventually she realized that we are the keepers of all things alfalfa and oat related, the two most precious commodities to a cow (aside from mother's milk, of course).  At first she'd come only so close that she could slurp up a few pieces of grain with the very tippy tip of her tongue, leaning forward at the edge of her front hooves, neck strained, and eyes bugged violently from her sockets in complete fear.  But oh, how the fear must have been worth the delicious risk.  Soon, I was moving my grain-filled palm closer to my chest, forcing her forward, forward, slowly so that - before long- she had to withstand gentle scratches and pats in order to retrieve the glorious grain/nectar.  Oh - the torment.

Luckily for me, and for the calf, the entire process was expedited because of the forced separation that must occur with dairy animals.  The only way to actually milk the mother is to keep the baby away for long enough intervals to produce more milk.  I hemmed and hawed over the necessity of separation.  It seemed cruel to keep them apart for any length of time when they had only just undergone a traumatic change in living situation.  I imagined the devastation it would cause.  The screaming.  The tears (mine or theirs?).  Then I realized I was guilty of anthropomorphism - my typical go-to reaction when it comes to animals - and one morning I hooked Rodeo to a lead rope and pulled (dragged) her into the front yard where she shared a fence with the cow pasture and Maddie.  Then I stuck my fist in my mouth and squinted up my eyes waiting for the subsequent screaming and panic that would surely ensue.  But.......nothing.  Instead, Rodeo trotted to the lush bermuda that still covers our front yard and started to happily eat this new, rare commodity - GRASS!

The two weeks I spent waiting to finally separate the baby from her mama, all in anticipation of torture and drama, was for naught.  Rodeo comes running now when she sees us arrive at the pasture gate in the morning.  She trots right into the front yard and makes herself happily at home with the nice coastal hay she's provided, the handfuls of grain she's fed in trade for neck scratching and back-patting.  She has, quite literally, become the queen of the most prime real estate on the property.  The separation has also afforded us a lot of QT with the tiny royalty, and she walks right up once I sit down on the ground.  It's become her habit to cover my face and clothing in slimy calf licks - something that may seem appalling to most - but we consider a sign of progress and victory.  The bucking bronco we brought home one month ago has transformed into one of the more affectionate creatures on the property.  Further proof that most animals deserve second (sometimes third) chances.  Also, that first impressions aren't always accurate - and all that.  Kimberly worried that she might grow into the name, maybe she should have been named something with a less high-strung connotation?  But considering how she's taken to ruling the front pasture, I'd say she got the name just right.

Monday, December 17, 2012


Pulling laundry from the washing machine this morning, I heard the faint clinking sound of bits of things fall against the metal spinner.  Once it was clear of clothing I saw a pile of grain had accumulated beneath the clothes, the remnants of so many mornings spent taming a wee calf.  Finding grain in the washing machine is a sure sign you're taming livestock, or that your livestock are perhaps very spoiled.  It's become second nature now to fill the goat feeders in the morning and shove two handfuls of grain in any empty pocket (which are hard to come by lately since most are filling with kleenex and mittens) before heading out to spend time with the calf.  In my hurry to clean clothes, I forgot to empty pockets and am left with a puddle of animal feed.  I try to remember that these things are signs of a life well-lived, or at least a life lived fully.  Or at least that I'm alive?  I try not to sweat the small stuff like a load of clothes faintly coated with oat and alfalfa dust - is my point.

So many reminders like this lately, so many juxtapositions growing more distinctly -well- juxtaposed.  At the feed mill today I spent time chatting with an employee and learned about an organization that lends a voice to farmers and ranchers (FARFA) during legislative sessions (and all the time).  We exchanged cards, and I drove the old farm truck home down the potholed roads that cut straight through rolling prairie.  With my policy background, maybe I could get involved in this stuff - just a little at first - but who knows what it could lead to.  Can I chisel my way into work that finally, actually, completely aligns with my life?  It's a big dream, I guess.  But so was the farm.  And this place started with just a little box of chickens.  I arrived home, sat down at the computer, and worked on public education stuff.  Then I went outside briefly for some impromptu lead training with the darling Rodeo Queen (Yes, there's grain in my pocket again).  Came back inside to answer emails related to, again, public education stuff.  Farm hat. Work hat. Farm hat. Work hat.

First feta from Bee Tree Farm milk
I also talked with the owner of the mill today who likes to meet his patrons and hear about the animals that are fed through his small scale, organic feed mill.  He leaned against the truck and asked what cheeses I've made, and do I plan to share some chevre with him in the spring?  Will I have a little extra cream to spare from the cow's milk?  He got a little misty talking about his love of raw milk, how it's so hard to come by unless it's bootlegged (his words).  How people clamor for the stuff, and that I should consider upping my production.  It was a funny conversation for various reasons, namely that we were suddenly classified as "producers" of anything, just because we have one small dairy cow.  Funny also since the entire conversation between both the owner and the talk about helping with advocacy work took place over what was technically considered my lunch break.  The owner asked if my husband is a full time farmer.  I explained that, no, he is a full time engineer and a part time farmer.  So, he then reasoned, you're the full time farmer in the family?  Laughing again, I explained that I also "worked" part time as a farmer but my work from home set-up makes it feasible.  But goats and cows, he stated in complete seriousness, they are a 7 day per week, 24 hour per day job, and they don't take vacation.  How, he asked, can you do it?  I opened my mouth, ready to spew forth a witty response, but all that came out was a feeble, "I don't know."

I don't know.

Since we acquired Madaline and her calf, the responsibility and work around here has almost doubled.  This change coincided with the addition of Atlas, the little buckling, who now lives in the cow pasture with Boss.  The transition has been difficult for all of us.  The guard puppies are only recently overcoming their confusion over the loss of herd mates, and they've finally stopped breaking into Boss's pasture to make sure he's ok.  This morning I spent a better part of one hour patching areas of the fence that Boss had slipped under to return to his herd, Atlas screaming and kicking along the fenceline each time Boss escaped back in to be with the girls and puppies.  Meanwhile, the cows must be separated in order for an afternoon milking which means more animals to maintain with clean water and fresh hay.  I cried a few times this weekend in those moments where it seemed many choices were a big mistake (namely - the bucks) and wished desperately to speak their language to explain why it must be so.  It also struck me how absolutely tethered I have become to this place now.  2 months ago, I was still more of my old self than new.  But over the past few weeks it's clear I've crossed some invisible line that delineates Then and Now.  Or the Before and After of these lifestyle changes.

A pile of bucklings.  A pile of trouble.
Yesterday I turned 33 years old.  I spent last year's birthday in a muddy construction zone arguing with the painting crew and then arguing with the builder, then crawled under the covers and begged Jer to sell the whole damned place.  It's a lifetime away from now, back when we had a garage and were perched on a cul-de-sac and could see into our neighbor's postage stamp yards.  This year I fixed fencing, separated animals, Jeremy shot (another!) coyote, and I milked a cow before my birthday dinner.  What's stayed the same, mostly, is the day job, and it's making less sense to me every day - is certainly less important.  Now, more than ever, I am pulled in two directions; a feeling you can't prepare for even when anticipated.  How do you explain to your employer that you absolutely must not travel in January in case the goats kid?  I am officially teetering along the work/life balance beam, (not so) secretly hoping that something will push me fully into the farm.  These transitions are tough and they're dirty, so I scrub beneath my nails at night, and I re-wash the clothes covered in bits of grain forgotten in pockets.  And for now I accept my current situation as a wishbone, reveling in the small victories of homemade cheese and clean work clothes - these split identities battling it out each day for my attention.  May the best one win.  

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Stupid Chickens: Part 12

Tila Tequila is the last remaining chicken from our Austin house.  We moved all of the Austin ladies out to the "farm" about 9 months ago.  Since then coyotes, hawks, neighbor's dogs, etc. have taken their toll.  But 'ol Tila has out lasted the other 8 ladies.  I think a key part of her successful strategy is to turn her nose up to the communal hen house and stubbornly reside on the porch of the house.  Yes, Tila has set up shop on the porch, and has refused to be transplanted to the hen house regardless of how many times we physically move her after she's roosted for the night.  You may be wondering what's the big deal if a helpless chicken decides to sleep on the porch, but if you've ever had to play hopscotch in the morning to avoid the chicken "bombs" from the previous evening, you understand.  So, this evening I moved the firewood stack that has previously been her roost to throw her off.  Tila has lasted this long because she is resilient and adaptable.  After the sun set, I wandered around the porch hoping to f ind a Tila-free porch.  Alas, she found another roost atop my lawn mower.  Stupid (or incredibly stubborn) chickens.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The New Normal

Sunday night I shoved my body against an injured goat and pinned her to the barn.  She screamed angrily at me as I shook bright blue blood stop powder down onto the wound that leaked into her eyes and down her neck.  The sound of four other goats slamming their bodies against the fence for a good view competed with the sound of an angry Jolene.  She bucked and bleated.  It was near pitch darkness, and I could only make out the outline of her head and smell the pungent metallic scent of blood.  This wasn't working.  So for the first time, I'd have to bring a goat inside the house.  I'm surprised it hasn't happened sooner.

I jogged towards the house knowing she'd follow me.  A well-loved goat forgives her owner quickly, and she trotted along behind me.  Still screaming.  Annoyed and bleating.  I opened the door to the mud room and she ambled in, instantly mesmerized by the assorted shoes she could sample, the dirty laundry bin she could raid for something possibly delicious.  "JEREMYYY!" I screamed down the hallway, "NEED GOAT HELP.  NOW.  HELP. NOW."  In under a minute he appeared at the door, yawned, stretched.  What would it be this time?

With his help and the light, we cornered the frustrated animal whose little horn bud (called scurs, if you're interested) ripped off in her pregnancy-hormone fueled attack against the baby buckling we'd brought home that evening.  She was mad at the intruder, then mad the horn ripped off, then mad that I tried to doctor it, then mad that I was petting her, then mad that I wasn't.  That's goats for you.  We finally wiped her face, applied the powder and wound spray.  The bleeding stopped, and she was given a cookie for (relatively) good behavior.  Since then, Jolene's decided she rather likes the baby buckling who we've named Atlas.  My sister said his belly looks like an interpretive map of the world, and since I'm all out of creative energy, the name stuck.  Cleaning up later, I wiped the bloody hand print off the blood stop powder container and scrubbed my hands that were stained purple and blue for two days.  The blood that soaked into my favorite jeans appears permanent so they've been added to the pile of "farm clothes" that's slowly doubled over the course of this year.

And that's how this week began and continued.  I had a feeling it would be a doozy between the addition of a new goat, my aggressive attempts to extract milk from the cow, and a rather dodgy work situation - the combination of all this mixing as well as oil and water.  Add to the drama two guard puppies (one in particular) who have decided that enough is enough and it was about damn time to sample a chicken.  So we lost another to our own dogs, and although the hawk attacks have subsided, the coyotes have picked up where they left off.  The addition of cows in our pasture has lured chickens out to pick through the resulting cow patties - a wonderful little system.  However, it's made the coyote's work easy.  Too easy.  They simply lounge in the brush and pounce when a hen gets close.

So yesterday - yesterday I came home from the office early and set up shop downstairs at the table.  Jeremy was home not feeling well but went outside for a minute when a coyote sprang out of nowhere (and right in front of him) to grab a hen pecking at a patty.  The hen managed to escape, and Jer came running inside.  "Coyoteeeee!!" He yelled after grabbing the rifle from its case and bounding up the stairs into the attic, a spot that provides a pretty great vantage point of the back pasture although it happens to be (as his friend pointed out) a fairly un-classy way to shoot an animal.  Classy or not - there's only so much coyote predation one little farm can take.

As I sat at my computer, setting up a conference call for the following morning, a gunshot cracked out from above.  I blinked.  The dogs looked up at me and blinked.  Then I hit send on the email and stood up from work to go track a coyote in the pasture.

There's a lot more to say, I feel, about the many varied moments of drama we experienced this week here sprinkled in between the many varied moments of drama we both experienced at work.  This week, more than ever, I feel like our life's a big ball of dough that we're kneading, adding this and that, squishing things together.  Just when I feel it's settled, the ball starts to rise again slowly, all the yeasty stuff inside it doubling and growing, until we have to punch it down, knead things back together again.

For the foreseeable future, we're not adding any more animals, thank goodness, although I expect goat babies here in about six weeks.  Is six weeks enough time to relocate the bucks into a new pasture and finally (good lord, finally) learn how to efficiently milk a cow?  Is it enough time to finish the goat barn so there will be space for the new kids?  Enough time to hook it up to electricity?  Enough time to figure out how to make this place tick with the busy day jobs?  This is all, all of it, wishful thinking, and I get that patience is a virtue and all that.  But for right now - consider this my white flag waving up above the list of unfinished tasks, dirty floors in the house, broken pasture fencing, the weedy garden.  Even as I write this from a chair on the front porch, three dogs sprawled out beside me, one cat purrs and rubs against my feet and Winston growls in jealousy.  The resident porch chicken (the only old hen left from our Austin house), is perched on the antique Coke cooler eating cat food, the front yard sprinkled with The Chickens Who Lived, scratching at calf patties where Rodeo spent the day in separation from Madaline.  A chorus of five goats comes pouring out from the forest since it's one hour until their dinner time and they fear I'll forget, and six donkeys compete for hay at the round bale, kicking and snorting.  I'm answering work emails and setting up meetings for next week in between writing sentences here.  Between the nights - sleepless with job worry or sleepless from running out to chase coyote - and the days alternately cleaning up after animals or creating power points - it's not boring.
It's not easy, either.

Punch down and knead, knead, knead.      

I fought the farm.  The farm won.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Happy Holidays!

Ok, so it may have been 80F outside, and the windows may have been open, but we did have Christmas music playing.  Our first Christmas tree in the new house.  

Friday, November 30, 2012

Spilled Milk

I've never been one to handle defeat gracefully - at least not initially.  I have screamed, kicked, thrown things and acted, generally, as if the sky were falling.  Which is why, today, I know that I've finally made impressive steps towards full-on maturity.  Today - after separating the calf from Maddie and after listening to bugle-like cow yodeling/screaming for more than 6 hours, and after waiting more than a week to fully separate the two in order to get a full milking, and after months of waiting for the cows to, literally, come home, and after more than 4 yrs of waiting for the milk cow I've dreamed of: I spilled the milk.  And, I am pleased to report, I didn't cry over it.

Or not for too long.

One of the reasons the Madaline/Rodeo Queen package was so attractive was because a well-trained, friendly milk cow was coming with a nursing calf.  This sort of arrangement alleviates the pressure to milk twice daily in order to keep the cow from drying up.  It's a milk share situation and a wonderful way to ease a novice into the whole ordeal.  Also, it's rare that two people can efficiently consume one gallon of milk each day or turn it into milk by-products.  It has been done, but not by people like me.  The trick to a milk-share is separating the calf from the momma periodically so that you can obtain more than a few piddly squirts from her udder.  In an over-cautious effort to ease their transition, I waited more than a week to finally separate the two for any length of time.  Moving to a new farm is traumatic enough so I was in no hurry to immediately cause further stress.  Today, however, I was on a mission.  Since I'd be home all day, it was a great opportunity to pull/lure the little bucking bronco calf (she's really started to love me as long as there's food in my pocket) into the front yard where she and Maddie could share a fence.  My hope being that keeping them close would alleviate drama.  And I was right! (mostly)  For the first few hours, Rodeo trotted around her new enclosure and sampled all of the exotic delicacies in the front yard, namely - bermuda grass.  Maddie ate from the round bale keeping an eye on her baby.  It wasn't until several hours later when Maddie's udder began to fill with new milk and Rodeo became bored with the grass and hay that the bugling started.  They paced the fence crying and pawing.  Both finally laid down and, true story, mooed quietly in their sleep.  It was a dreadful spectacle that tugged at my weak little heart strings enough that I decided to milk Maddie two hours earlier than planned.

After waiting so very, very long - I under-filled her feed bucket.  Rookie mistake.  When milking an animal, it's imperative they have enough feed to last them through the activity, otherwise they will become peckish and feisty and do things like back up and out of the milk stand.  For the first time since bringing her here, Maddie had enough milk that I was able to get comfortable milking with both hands like you see in movies and stuff.  I felt incredibly fancy.  Through my newly acquired speed and fanciness - the milk developed a beautiful frothy, foamy head in the shiny bucket.  This is IT!!!  I shouted in my head - YOU ARE AN AMAZING, PROFESSIONAL MILKING PERSON!!!  It probably takes most people weeks - nay - MONTHS to achieve such profound heights of milking perfection - I smirked happily down at the bucket that contained a volume of milk I previously believed to be unattainable.  What - WHAT - had I been worried about all those sleepless nights before bringing the cows home?

I am clearly a natural.

Just at that moment, you know, when an invisible hand started patting me on the back - at that moment - I noticed Maddie start to snuffle and toss her head, heard the distinct sounds of a tongue licking an empty bowl.  She shifted one way.  Then the other.  And then, in comically slow motion, she began to back up.  I reached down, also in slow motion, screaming "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooooooo!" but as I grabbed the bucket, my "No" faded slowly with the realization that, despite holding the bucket firmly, it was making contact with her back leg which was raised in the air - a motion moving backwards.  Just at the moment when the bucket hit her kneecap, its precious contents - hard-won milk my hands were still cramped from milking - flew forth onto my chest, sprayed both arms, and dripped down my thighs.  Maddie stopped moving and looked up at me, letting out a soft, "moooo."  What's with all the theatrics, lady?!

I stood up to full height, empty bucket in one hand, milk already forming a tight skin on my arms, the warm stuff absorbing into my jeans.  It smelled sweet.  And I knew how delicious it tasted.  I allowed myself one, very quiet, whispered, "Dumbass" to myself and hung my head momentarily before walking forlornly from the pasture, wearing the fruits of my labor.  

But the point of all this, of the painfully explicit details, is to illustrate one proud fact: I did not cry or throw anything or kick the feed room wall.  I cursed under my breath, rinsed myself off, and am very, very close to laughing about it.   

The more time we spend down here in the trenches, the more idioms I remember - the kinds we all heard growing up that I now understand have roots planted firmly in agriculture.  There was a time when the majority of folks milked their own cows rather than heading to a supermarket (what the heck was a supermarket?!).  In those days, no explanation was needed if you had a bad day because the milk had spilled.  And your neighbor, probably also someone with their own little cow, would have assured you that there's always tomorrow, so there's no point in crying over spilled milk.  I actually said this to myself today.  I said it as I calculated the cost of the grain that went into her bucket meant entirely to distract her through the milking.  I said it to myself when thinking about the time I carved out of a busy day last week to haul 10 bales of expensive coastal hay in the truck - just so the calf would have something special to nibble on while separated from her mom.  I said it to myself as I thought about the check just written for that adorable cow who is, after all, an animal - who does not always behave as we would hope.  But one thing is certain: tomorrow there will be more milk.  And I'll put more grain in that damned bucket.  

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Got Milk?

Almost there.  We've been busy here at BTF/NNFR: building barns, building milk stanchions, acquiring milk cows, etc.  You know...the usual.  We have all of the pieces in place now.  Once Jenna gets back into a routine after some business travel, I expect we'll be elbow deep in the liquid, white goodness.  The little bit she's collected so far has been surprisingly sweet.  More updates to come.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Seeing in the Dark

I guess I've gotten in the habit of writing here the night before.  Over the course of four years, before has meant many things.  It's meant bringing livestock home for the first time (that we stared at bewildered by our luck or stupidity for a full 2 hours after they jumped from the trailer), or before meant breaking ground on the house (a process that we stared at bewildered by our luck or stupidity for two full hours as the bulldozers plucked trees from the ground), or before meant gathering wobbly baby goats in our arms and placing them in the back of the car (I looked at them and they blinked back at me, bewildered by our luck or stupidity for loading brand new babies in a car and driving them down the highway).  Tonight marks another before moment for us.  Whether it amounts to being big or small, something that rearranges our lives or something that is just a blip on our timeline: there's no telling.  With all things, and especially in the choices we make, there is never any telling.

Tomorrow Madaline and her calf Rodeo Queen come home to Bee Tree.

Madaline is the particularly small Dexter cow that I met over two years ago when I first attended Kimberly's milking class.  After weeks of battling Jer's damaged back and other inconveniences that obstruct land work when the two landowners have full time jobs and an unfinished house: the milking area and cow shelter are nearly done.  They're done enough that tomorrow afternoon we can finally load the little cow and her calf into Dwayne's trailer and bring them here.  It's true that we're not new to cows, but our other little Dexter herd was nothing more than glorified pasture ornaments until they alternately became food and were sold to more appropriate owners.  Madaline, for me, is an old fashioned dairy cow.  She will be a part of this family.  Her contributions and presence here are an important part of what we will eat and drink - how we subsist.  I've got high hopes for little Rodeo Queen, as well.  This is either the beginning of something, or not worth mentioning.  I have a feeling it's the former.

Tonight I'm giddy as we prepare for tomorrow; driving over to Dwayne's to hook his trailer to our truck in the total darkness.  His horses hang over the paddock fence snorting and pawing at the ground, hoping for carrots - receiving the entertainment of two idiots lining up a trailer, instead.  At our place, Jer gets home from work in the already inky night.  With a headlamp and dull tractor headlights he goes through the motions of unattaching tractor implements and hooking on the hay spear.  The goats peer through the fence and bleat weakly.  The puppies stand like soldiers watching Their People so close but too far to reach over and pat a head.  I'm holding a dark Mexican beer as I walk in front of the tractor to open and close gates.  Lock and unlock padlocks.  Use the unsharpened army knife to tear away the plastic binding around the round bale.  We set out a new bundle of hay tonight for the arrivals tomorrow.  Up on a hill I can make out the sketch of 6 rotund donkeys who've just wandered up from wherever they were mulling.  The minute we rip the binding off hay it releases a pungent smell of dried grass, the last wisp of green scent captured somewhere from when it was cut in June - like insects in old amber - a waft of summer floats off the bale.  The donkeys catch it in the air and go screaming with excitement, come trotting down the hill.

We all stand in this scene, completing the ritual of setting out new hay in the feeble light of late dusk.  There was a time I never could have seen so clearly in this sort of darkness.  I never could have picked out the name of animals with only my hands or measured the distance of a mesquite limb from my exposed arm in such little light.  I don't claim that we've gone feral living out here in the harsh contrast between night and day, woods and prairie, city and country.  But I've gotten much, much better at seeing in the dark.  It's an acute evolution, those most primal survival skills kicking in when necessity demands them.  Because we can't, naturally, see in the dark.  Just like we can't, naturally, know how our decisions today will mold everything else - starting tomorrow.

In my 8th grade science class, we dissected sheep eyes.  At the back of each we found the most beautiful iridescent pebbles - I can't think of a better way to describe them.  They were hard as stone, smooth and oblong.  They were the color of peacock feathers, and I was mesmerized by their jewel toned beauty.  These were the tapetum lucidum - the reflective element to help mostly nocturnal animals see in the dark.  This hardened stone that grows at the back of the eye so creatures don't have to go around with their beastly legs (paws or hooves) groping out in front of them like us humans - fools that we are - relying on artificial light.  I shoved the stone in my pocket, perhaps a gruesome theft, but it looked like a precious gem.  And it possessed magical powers.

I will never be able to walk outside in the middle of a dark night and see exactly what's leering back at me.  I used to be afraid of it - all the windows here that illuminated me to whatever was glaring in from the trees.  I used to fear moonless skies.  It's eery to be covered in a black sky pin-pricked by starlight.  I used to require absolutely solid ground lightened by flashlight.  But here we are again, and who knows what we've signed up for or what it will turn into.  We've gotten great at opening doors straight out into the dark night, squinting until they adjust, sticking our hands out ahead of us and just feeling our way through it.  With a little optimism and hope we've learned to feel our way without reflective eye stones, or future-tellers, or absolute certainty.  Of anything.  And it's a deeply appropriate way to celebrate this Thanksgiving.  I'm so grateful for the night vision we've developed and the blind faith it's afforded us both.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Rolling Dice

Keno Farms is a really spectacular spot out in the Northwestern hills of Williamson County, just at the edge of the town where I grew up.  Huge barns and shelters pop up behind the old stone house that Jon and Mary Fenoglio built together themselves years ago.  The entire acreage in front of the house is cleared of every last speck of brambles and brush.  It's actually a registered airfield so their son can use the space to fly his tiny plane.  We had the privelege of watching it taxi and take off while we stood chatting on their front porch.  It looked like a little toy out there in the front lawn as it sputtered forward and suddenly gunned ahead, lifting up, up in silence as invisible hands of wind nudged it over a fence.  It dangled above a pasture, circled and flew away in a lazy line where the sun was setting.

I met the Fenoglios the way I meet most people these days: goats.  They have them, and I'm looking for another.  These folks don't advertise in the traditional way, in fact I found them through another goat breeder's website.  After exchanging emails about a particular little buckling for sale, I made the trek out not knowing what to expect because you can't ever know what to expect when it comes to these things.  The way we live on land and with our animals - it's a deeply personal ritual that everyone approaches differently.  It's a lovely freedom to be tucked off the road somewhere so that curb appeal doesn't matter, and it's quite alright if the chickens lay their eggs right there in the flower pot or at the base of a peach tree.  And if the peacock wants to roost on the rooftop well, then, it makes the prettiest wind vane I've ever seen.  So that's how we saw Keno Farms: airfield out front, eggs scattered amongst flower beds, geese chasing through a pasture of lazy goats, and a field of Holstein mooing through their cud.  As usual, Mom came along for this visit, a habit we've fallen into when I go to see a man about an animal.  We've gotten pretty good at having conversations with only expressions, and I've passed on a few bad decisions based on her furrowed brow alone.  Plus, like any animal lover, it's hard for her to pass on the opportunity to pet a few friendly goats.

Jon and Mary led us through pens and pastures, barn stalls and a dairy room.  We met their milkers and the dairy calves.  We saw the newly hatched chicks scamper behind a hen who led them under hay feeders and between goat hooves.  Mary and Jon themselves were as lively and fluid as their farm. Both kept up a constant stream of conversation, spouting off goat lineage and recalling anecdotes about earlier days of their farm.  The way they told stories it's obvious they must have whispered about this place years ago, clasping hands and having those "What if" conversations.  In fact, the farm's name itself refers to the gambling game since the land purchase was a risky business for the couple, some 30 years ago.  It was a hope and prayer type of situation apparently, and judging by what we saw, lady luck favored them when they rolled the dice on this dream.  "We couldn't make the first payment," Jon laughed while he scratched the back of his head and kicked at a rock on the ground, "but, want it bad enough.  So" - with a sweep of the arm towards the barns and vast array of happy goats, "you figure it out.  We made it work."  Mary is the sort of woman with perpetually rosy cheeks, and she smiled back.  I saw them like those trees that grow out of creek beds.  Two separate trunks with shared roots.  I'll be damned if I've ever met a lovelier couple.

We were out to look at their little Nubian male goats, a purchase I made in an effort to keep Boss, and to keep him happy, too.  I cannot keep a male goat with the does and with their eventual babies.  His scent will flavor the milk and his increasingly large presence could become dangerous to them - although he remains one of the gentlest and sweetest animals I've met.  The alternative is to find a new home for Boss, but in my commitment to keeping a buck on site for ease of breeding in the future, and because I love him - this is the choice right now (I will never have an animal live by itself).  Willy has proven to be too small for Boss's advances, and so he will remain as a companion in the doe's pasture.  There's no grand plan here, folks, and this might be another poor decision to go along with the decision to have one buck in the first place.  Or it will work out just fine.  A future teller would be handy now, but making mistakes is half of the process, so we'll see how wise my own judgement proves to be.  The new guy comes home soon.

All these decisions - to do or not to do - to buy or not to buy - to act or not to act - they weigh on me.  Someone commented recently on the heaviness we bring on ourselves and how complicated life must be for folks like the Fenoglios who have so many animals in their care.  Don't complicate your own life, was the unspoken implication.  It's fair warning.  It's true that each addition feels a bit like putting more on top of an already teetering tower of obligations, but I'm getting used to feeling full to the brim - to the extent that I'd miss the mess if it were gone.  In fact, a friend sent a note this evening.  She also lives on a small property and though she doesn't focus on animals, she's poured a great deal of energy (blood, sweat, etc) into that dirt as an avid gardener.  After carefully digging, planting, and tending a new tree, the deer attacked the thing, ripping it to shreds, save for a few spare limbs.  "So I went back out, and I planted the limbs.  We'll see," she reported to me tonight.

I can picture her out there carefully patting down dirt around tattered branches in the dark tonight, wearing a head lamp and swatting at gnats.  What drives us to this?  What is the human condition that recognizes when the odds are against us but forces us to give it a go anyhow?  My finger's not on the word for it just yet because it's an amalgamation of all the beautiful things in the spirit - all smashed together.  For her, for me, for the Fenoglios - for all of you crouched down over a dream: we'll see. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012


For weeks now, I've been feeling slightly ill and unsettled.  There's a lot of change coming to the farm with the addition of Madaline and Rodeo and the goat babies I expect in late winter.  The anticipation of all these responsibilities keeps me up at night, but then, the fear of never having these responsibilities used to keep me awake, too. Jon Katz recently shared a quote from Lao-tzu on his Bedlam Farm blog: "Fill your bowl to the brim, and it will spill over."  I've been thinking about that a lot lately as my own cup starts to overfloweth.  I don't actually interpret the quote as a cautionary tale.  Maybe it's too much that I take on, but I prefer to swim upstream in the midst of things that make me happy.  The "spill over" mentioned, in my world, means that other parts of my life get affected, other people who know me are affected too.  While it doesn't bother me all the time, it requires a lot of patience from them.  Unintentionally, I drag others upstream along with me - for better or worse.  This translates into backbreaking labor on the part of Jeremy (and sometimes his father) to breathe life into whatever rudimentary sketches are drawn in my mind about animal shelters, fencing, garden plots - those little lines and zig zags that must somehow zip together and make sense. 

As we build more places to shelter more animals it's evident that we're running out of land.  Or, rather, the space we have is already earmarked by the farm that lives in my head.  I have to be strategic, at this point.  The plans I make now can be undone, with some trouble, and nothing I bring home or commit to now defines this place forever.  But it does shape the story, and the undoing of things is never as effortless as the decision to do them.

In thinking about our goals for the property, it's clear that they have already changed.  In the short time we've lived here, some realities have sunk like stone.  There's only so much space here and acquiring additional land remains a question mark that hovers each time I walk the property line.  So, it seems, the donkeys may need to be re-homed.  It's hard to even type this, because it means it might happen, and I have trouble bearing the thought of a pasture without them.  However, I increasingly struggle to justify their purpose out behind the fences.  Bringing animals in and then moving them out - it feels like a failure - a failure that I did not try harder to make them into something more purposeful and a failure to plan well and act with forethought.

It's timely then that Jon Katz recently wrote an ode to donkeys, the animals that he and his wife love dearly on their own farm in upstate New York.  This made me suck in my breath and pause before doing anything drastic.  The plans for them are stewing along with plans for other things.  Either way, it's a beautiful read.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Still Annoying

Our Halloween donkey, Boo, turns four today.  That means we've had him for exactly 3 years and 10 months.  That's 3 years and 10 months of slobbery donkey licks, sneaky bites, and over-sized velvet ears.  Happy Birthday Boo!!  You remain just as annoying but hilarious as ever.  May your day be filled with dust baths and apples. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Hunter's Moon

3:18 am: Jer sat up in bed, "Do you hear that?"  My stomach sunk with a heavy thud in an instant.  I heard nothing, but it's never words to wake to out here in the dark, dark countryside under a full moon.  We both cocked our heads to the window and the outlines of sound started to trickle through until suddenly it's all I could hear.  The guard pups were barking at the furthest corner of the goat pasture.  It was a frantic, angry sound.  I've never heard them like that before.  I'd never heard them so far from the barn at this hour of night.

Without thinking I threw on a robe and ran towards the mudroom, skidded around a corner, grabbed a flashlight as I fumbled my feet into flip flips.  Then I ran out into the 42 degree morning.  The pups growled and barked ferociously.  Jer was on the back porch, "They're back in the corner - what's going on?"  I sent the flashlight beam towards the barn where the goats always, always tuck in at night.  No creature was there.  I called six names as I ran to the barn.  All that answered was the howl and yip of a pack of coyote from the spot where my dogs barked.  The pups sounded panicked.  The coyotes were hunting.  We've heard that sound before.  We've heard how it ends.

"WILLY!  PEARL!  JOLENE!  BOSS!  BRUUUUCCEEEEE!  BETTTYYYYYY!!"  I was screaming now.  Where were the goats, where were the goats - the blood pounded in my ears.  Finally - above eery howls and yips, tinkling out between panicked growls and barks - I heard Willy.  Such a faint and distant bleating I was sure he was injured or worse.  In seconds the forest started to part under the hooves and paws of six beasts making their way home through bushes and trees.  They pounded back to the barn, and I quickly counted bodies.  1, 2, 3, 4, 5.  ?  5?  Then finally the 6th - Jolene inky as the night - I missed her in the crowd.

It's cold outside at 3:20 on an October morning.  It's dirty there on the floor of the barn where the animals putter about and curl up to sleep.  But there in my nightgown, wearing flip flops, I went through the gate and sat down amidst the dirty hay and goat berries and gathered them all together.

In the middle of the night, coyotes are nightmares come prowling out of dreams.  They're always awake when we're sleeping, and they're always hunting.  So far - my dogs have earned their keep tenfold. 


Sunday, October 28, 2012

When I Blinked

Since Friday morning, it's been legit cold down in these parts.  I'm not sure of the science behind it, but without fail, a few hours of cold weather causes livestock fur to fluff out and puff up adorably.  Thursday was 90 degrees and everyone was wearing slick and shiny July coats.   But by Friday morning when the front slammed into the farm, all the animals kicked and spun around their respective pastures suddenly bundled in thick, fuzzy, fur.  Has anyone witnessed this phenomena?  Am I hallucinating?  Can I get an amen?

Whether real or imagined, the animals appear cozy and bundled as they race in between trees.  There has been more tail-wagging and snorting than ever before.  Even the chickens seem fluffed up and more energetic as they stomp around the place, mostly eating the winter rye seeds Jer spent hours spreading.  It's gotten so cold, in fact, Jeremy made a serious pronouncement: "It is wood stove weather," and he has been busy between the stove and the woodpile ever since.  Occasionally I catch him walk through the living room before doing a double take and then stopping in a trance to watch the flames.  His annual love affair is, literally, rekindled.

Having her fired up again has unexpectedly brought forth a rush of memories from the house build and the early months here as we crammed too much activity into too little time.  It was as if we feared it would all suddenly go away so we tried frantically to do everything at once.  The stove reminded me of the months spent without a proper kitchen and cooking meals on the wood stove that we later ate on the sheepskin rug.  It reminds me how we'd turn off the lights just to look at the stars out of the living room windows.  We don't do that kind of stuff anymore.

I always suspected that, eventually, we'd take it all for granted.  At first glance, one might classify this as one of the greatest flaws of human nature - to take things for granted.  And, no doubt, it is a great big glaring flaw that each of us is guilty of to a certain extent on a daily basis.  But then, in those moments where something here happens that is so beautiful, so sad, so wonderful that I'm knocked down to my knees - then I realize: I'm not taking this for granted - I'm just getting accustomed to my reality.  Thank goodness I'm not constantly breathless like I was at the beginning.  At some point, I needed to stop drooling over the sunrise in order to start the day (full disclosure: I spent one hour this morning sitting on a log in the forest just to photograph leaves).  The balance to strike between awe, gratitude, and acceptance (but never indifference) - it's tricky.  Over the course of late summer and fall, for the first time in a year, my job overtook some of the goals I'd set here.  While it was appropriate to focus on work in that way, it meant I momentarily lost my balance.  For three solid months I've been teetering between things and have had to physically remind myself why I am here.  
Jeremy lit the first fire on Friday night and in the evening when we walked outside to lock up the chickens, the smell of woodsmoke wafted down from the stovepipe, curled through the trees, and wavered above the driveway where I was walking.  It met me square in the face and smacked both my cheeks repeatedly as if shouting, "Snap out of it!"  The smell, I swear, the smell it reminded me of last winter's teeth gritting, pain-inducing work.  I suddenly remembered how damn good it felt to work hard finishing something we'd started.  Or starting something we wanted to finish?  If that's the case then, well, we're not really finished yet, are we? 

I've spent lots of time perusing old posts from the winter into spring time when the goat babies came home, when I was exhausted from bottle feeding and worrying and cleaning goat bottoms and puppy fur (casualties of goat bottoms).  It seemed that they would never grow.  Back when we pulled the big red barn onto the property and Jer started building the shelters against it and it seemed he would never finish.  Now I have a huge animal shelter and goats in a pasture, almost completely independent of me (sniff).  This week, as the goats followed me to the chicken house for chores, the puppies ran to the large pasture fence whining and pawing frantically at the gate.  There in the brush, a coyote gazed steady back at them.  I opened the gate and they chased it away in earnest.  Suddenly I realized the puppies are working dogs, grown up right under my nose - poof!  I peeked back even further during the year(ss) that we considered twisted variations of methods for finally living here.  And if you think we didn't discuss tent living, then you'd be dead wrong.

Now, today, we're here.  I'm sitting in the big chair in front of the woodstove - the only part of this house that was installed correctly (!!! true story !!!) and which kept us warm and motivated through cold, damp nights when we were wrist-deep in frigid mortar.  I'm full from a dinner of spaghetti and meatballs; a meal based almost entirely from our own ingredients (eggs, herbs, tomatoes, beef).  And it occurs to me now - the meal that took me one hour to prepare this evening was four years in the making.  The saying about blinking and missing things - it's true - you know?  Sometimes I long for that steel-bellied focus we both maintained from last September through this summer, and I miss mixing up goat milk formula, cleaning bottles, and watching the new babies learn how to jump.  Those phases seem to streeeettccchh out into forever but in an instant, they are mere detours on the road map.  They become anecdotes shared over dinner with friends.  In retrospect, I wish I had known to inhale all that chaos, just sink right in a little longer.  It's good to claw at dreams every once in a while.

An impossible suggestion, but what the heck: try hard to wrap your arms around (and find the beauty in) the present.  It slips by real, real quick. 


Sunday, October 21, 2012


Today we had a small gathering of people here - some old friends and some new friends.  Some had been here many times and some for the first time.  It's always the same story when folks drive up for the first time, especially those who weren't privy to our beginnings of this land, the house, this life.  First there are the questions about the house and choice of building structure, then the curiosity over the building materials inside.  Somehow we always end up out on a porch looking at whichever livestock happens to be grazing out front, rolling in weeds, or scurrying across the driveway.  People wonder - how did we choose this plot of land?  They ask - what are your plans with this place and for the animals?  They look us up and down, then they look the property up and down.  I always wonder what the conversations are like when first-time visitors are driving home (probably through the sad little town we live near).  It's better not to know and not to care, and it doesn't matter either way.

I don't have answers to lots of questions we get asked, particularly about the animals, and that's because our plans are squishy.  They are smashed between spaces in our life where they fit best.  They change all the time.  As a perpetual planner, there's been a significant amount of giving control away to whatever bigger forces will take it.  There's no other way around it.  I don't know what will happen with my grant-funded job in the next 9 months.  I don't know if the rancher behind me will decide to sell a parcel of his land.  I don't know how my (quite possibly pregnant) does will handle birthing.  I don't know if I will ever learn to efficiently milk a cow.  Or how to efficiently juggle things like cow milking and a full time job.  Or how to finish an unfinished house on unfinished land.  I just know that everything will forever be a work in progress.  I'm getting better at loosening my grasp on the control I hold tight in a fist but want to learn how to open my palm and let it blow away into the next strong breeze, like seeds scattering.  Wherever it goes, there it is.

There is only one thing for absolute certain that I know and that I can plan.  No matter what the circumstance, I will always have animals.  When people arrive to peek in at this life, they're seeing more than trees and grass and donkeys and goats.  The little hooves that gallop through the woods, the paws that pound down onto the black soil, they are the insides of my head and my heart displayed haphazardly across these 15 crooked acres.  I can't explain it better than that, and I can't accurately plan for what they will be beyond today.  I just know what they represent - have always, really - represented in my life.  

Kimberly of Star Creek Country recently went through a painful experience with her own buck.  Reading her story of the excruciating decisions we must make as caregivers and homesteaders, it knocked me square in the gut.  For many, attachments to any animal beyond a dog or cat seem foreign and strange.  Livestock are livestock, with ear tags and a distinct purpose in life.  It's difficult to fathom that our love for them could mimic anything that one might feel for a pet or loved one.  But for us, these creatures are the central characters in our own stories.  Her loss is a jolt for me.  Another reminder that I don't control everything anymore.  Her recent story could be mine just as easily, and so I take it out onto the porch where the breeze blows - this fear of the loss and pain and the unknown - I take it out into the wind and open my palm.  I have to let it go.  The truth is that owning land and animals you love so deeply - it opens your heart in the best and worst ways.  Most of us who live off our animals and live with our animals, pieces of us sit outside and are exposed along with them.  The truth is that it's easier to stay, and stay, and stay, and keep my fist grasped tight around everything that can be controlled and planned.  But in the end - no matter what it could mean - I'd rather go out into the wind, wherever it takes me.