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.   

Monday, October 15, 2012

Stick a fork in it

Starting house projects again (new floors, finishing bathrooms and kitchen - oh my!) has really put my already heightened stress level into overdrive.  I find myself in a constant verge-of-tears state.  You know the kind, where brushing your teeth causes a "Why me???!!!" kind of reaction.  It's the most ridiculous feeling of being overwhelmed, under-resourced, disorganized and well...this too shall pass.  I know it.

Doesn't matter though.  Every single time - these periods of anxiety drive me back to those two old faithfuls for comfort and compassion - the two earthly objects that I cannot, must not, will not do without:  a butcher block and sharp knife.  Give me a pile of crunchy vegetables over a Xanax any day.  I'd rather chop the heck out of a root vegetable then pop a pill.  Little else elicits the sort of pure, liquid satisfaction as the pressure of a tight skin and the popping sound it makes as it gives beneath a heavy blade in quick succession.  It doesn't matter what I'm making so long as it's comprised of something crisp that needs to be broken down to little bits.  Recently we talked about how to alleviate some of the stress I'm juggling lately.  "Stop making dinners!!" Jer always suggests as a seemingly easy remedy - something to take off my plate, as it were.  This man, with all of his glorious qualities, could happily live off Ritz crackers and cheese whiz - a gaping flaw that I choose to overlook.  When it comes to these desperate suggestions I end up looking at him, mouth agape, "No cooking?!  Seriously?!  Why do you hate me??"

On any given day, cooking is the most imprecise thing I will do.  The ambiguous science of it all, the mystery of a little heat, a little garlic, a dash of something grabbed from the cupboard stirred with something tugged from the ground - it's the cheapest way to soothe me.  Don't get between me and my butcher block, is what I'm saying.  Fair warning a person is only given once.

On these days, when I find myself facing the (literal) uphill battle of rescuing chicks from hawks, small dogs from a passle of kicking donkeys, goat legs from fire ant piles, and my own leg from the stray spray of urine the buck decides to casually spew in a 180 degree arc - these days - I need 2 burners and a whole clove of garlic.  A bottle of olive oil and small glass jar filled with red jewels of pepper flakes.  I need the salt grinder in close reach and a pile of herbs pulled haphazardly from the herb garden out front that still limps through a goat-attack recovery.  I need an open bottle of red wine - some for the pot - but mostly for my glass. Whatever's bubbling in there and whatever is half chopped on the counter behind me: does it matter the result?  I loosely interpret a recipe but mostly work off smell, hoping for the best and knowing that the end result will fill a belly well enough to lull us to sleep.  Above all else and beyond anything:  I need to cook.  On a tough day, almost everything else is secondary. 

Also, a video of a donkey stampede helps.  It is just as (un)exciting as one might imagine (Fun trivia:  Who was standing behind me for the duration spraying pee on my leg???  Admit it.  You want my life).

Predator and Prey

Over the past few weeks, my flock of baby chickens has dwindled.  At first we suspected neighboring dogs.  We even suspected the guard puppies who have developed a very specific thirst for poultry, although they haven't successfully dined on our birds - yet.  I followed my own protocol in the rearing of the newest flock of chicks purchased in late summer in an effort to really beef up my egg production and also because I realized it's a lot easier to raise baby chicks outside in late summer then in the guest bedroom at the tail end of winter.  My protocol involves opening the door of the chick house during the day once they have lost every last baby feather.  It allows them to run through the weeds and scratch for bugs, chase butterflies, and start to follow the big hens through the pastures.  I did the same with the first flock from the spring.  I did the same with my flock in Austin.  They naturally run back into the baby coop at night where they're tucked in safely until sunrise.

I assume the chick snatching started when a hawk flew by and caught sight of movement down below in the grass.  They perch on electric wires everywhere with bright black eyes focused down like lasers onto the ground below.  First one chick was missing.  A few days later, we saw another was gone.  Now we're down to just a fraction from where we started.  Today I fear a hawk has taken one of the adult, laying hens.  These are the kinds of situations that test your fundamental philosophy on animal husbandry.  Opinions on this subject cover the spectrum and this blog isn't necessarily the forum for them.  I am aware of the fact that building a large coop and placing all chickens within its confines 100% of the time will reduce poaching probably down to 0.  It would also eliminate the proud definition of (true) free-range from my egg classification, in addition to robbing them of their natural instincts to forage freely.  I could build a chicken tractor and roll them around the pasture each day - another unappealing option as it still restricts movement.  Both options are just that - options - but neither fits my own belief system about how to raise chickens.  Some might call it animal cruelty to let them roam free and expose them to predators.  Others might claim penning them is another form of cruelty.  No matter where you or I stand on those kinds of issues, one thing is certain: everything here is food for something else.

I am as much predator as the hawk that's been swooping down from his sniper spot in the trees.  As soon as my hens are spent, they will be food for this table in addition to the food they provided over the course of their laying lives.  Eating food raised myself is a sharp reminder that I compete with the other predators who dwell in the country.  How badly do I want to protect my food?  Do I attack the competition?  Do I cage the food?  In the garden I've been battling grasshoppers and assorted caterpillars.  I poison them with Neem oil.  I pick them off leaves and feed them to the (free-range) chickens who often stand outside the garden while I weed.  It's part of their place in my food chain: both the birds and the bugs.  I could get really aggressive and grow the plants inside under grow lights, but that doesn't fit into my food philosophy.  Neither does caging chickens.

So now we venture into the realm of hawk deterrents - scarecrows?  Shooting BB guns up into the trees?  Nothing is foolproof.  In the future I'll be more aggressive with the competing predators as soon as I bring the box of peeps home and discourage hawks before they even have the option of easy meals.  And I'll buy more chicks to hedge my bets.  In the same vein, it's mid-October, and the coyotes have started waking up out in the hills.  Two times already I've heard a pack cross through our lower pasture.  They howl and yip as they move under the cactus and mesquite.  In the morning I find they've left scat as an introduction - like an unanswered knock at the door, "I was here while you were away.  I'll be back."  When possible, I try to get my own dogs to pee nearby or rub their scent on a tree.  Like the chickens, I could cage the goats and keep them safe inside a building.  But I refuse to give my animals an artificial existence by artificially removing them from the natural order of things.  Controversial or not, that's what it is, for this farmer - at least.   

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Loft

Pics from this weekend's project.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

These Country Bones

Half of Jeremy's heritage is country.  His maternal grandparents both were raised on farms in central Texas by German immigrants.  Each has stories about rendering fat and separating cream from milk.  Every year in February they still gather to make sausage in their garage using the same equipment from the farm decades ago - hand cranked gadgets and an assembly-line of family as staff for the job.  Almost every link is hung from hooks in the smokehouse out back Gramps built years ago.  The smoked sausage that comes from the smokehouse is consistently, intensely delicious.  It tastes like a Texas working farm, circa 1930, and a small German village all at once.  There's deep history in that food.  Between us, the majority of our agricultural background comes almost entirely from Jeremy's side.  Farming is a current in the veins of his family although no one farms any longer.  We've heard stories of the tragic drought of the 1950's that convinced many small Texas farms to cut their losses and move into more stable income.  I guess the climate played a role in the end of farming for this family, as did the lure of softer living.  Last summer Granny told me, over a piece of her chilled strawberry pie, "Oh, we talked about a farm when we got married but, I don't know," and with a sigh that sent her gaze to the backyard just blocks from a major highway, "I was ready for an easier life."

Month's ago, Granny and Gramps came to the new house for the first time since we'd moved in.  It was just during that time when all the new animals were babies.  Chicks frolicked in the high weeds and the baby goats were still on the bottle.  As Granny fed one of the baby goats I caught a slight mist cover her eyes, "I remember how to do this," she said - beaming.  Later, I handed her a particularly fluffy baby chicken that she gently held close to her chest.  Granny is always delightfully happy, but she was especially happy that day out in the field tending the animals.  I sensed that tendrils of her past pulled her back in ever. so. slightly.  Their stories about life on the farm are slow and calm, as if riding the mule 5 miles to school each day was as conventional as electricity is for us now.  For them, there is absolutely nothing exotic about making golden balls of butter at the kitchen table and then walking to the general store down the road where they were sold for 5 cents/pound.  Granny would tuck a hen under her arm to sell at the store too, if she had one to spare.  It was an incredibly straightforward and industrious life.  There's so much I want to ask them both about scenarios that haven't happened yet, or dilemmas that haven't occurred.  I need them as my reference and guide.  Soon, we will add a dairy cow and her baby and in the spring there will be goat births and the addition of milkings, then butter and cheesemaking.  When I ask questions that start with "What did you do when (insert farm-related problem)?" they always respond with a shrug, "Oh.  You figure it out.  You'll figure it out.  It's a hard life, but the food will taste a lot better."

Today the family came together and celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary (Think about that for a minute.).  In addition to family, many friends were invited and, for the first time, I met one of Granny's oldest friends, Ruby.  Like Granny, Ruby is a young 80+ year old who is bright and talkative.  She told me all about her own family and upbringing - also on a working farm.  "I was raised on a farm.  I worked hard.  I made milk into cream and I drank that unpasteurized milk.  It made me strong.  I've got good, country bones."  Ruby giggled with a hiccup-y laugh.  She touched my arm, "It's been a blessed life."  I think about Granny and Gramps, so strong and vibrant in their golden years - both from farms where work was constant and raw, where they lived off what they grew.  Jer and I are getting a late start out here, neither one of us having been raised off the land.  But it's better late than never, and out on this sloped piece of land, maybe it's more than donkeys and tomatoes that grow from the dirt.  We're developing our own set of country bones.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Crazy. Stupid. Love.

(I stole that title, it's true.  Get over it.)  It's been more than two weeks since I last sat down to write a note here for reasons partly beyond and partly within my control.  We've both been buried with work (the kind that pays the bills, not the fun kind).  I was out for much of last week, down on the glorious shores of south Texas where I was lucky enough to see a FULL SIZE model of Columbus's Nina and Pinta ships.  Behold the glory:

Don't ask me who that handsome character is in the foreground.  There was a sign calling him Santiago but it was never clear how he added value to the exhibit.  The South Texas Museum of Natural History didn't teach me too much, but Santiago here really motivated me to inject more enthusiasm into my life every day - he looks so happy - right?

As soon as I returned from this fabulous work trip (and drove through such titillating towns as Tynan, Panna Maria and Stockdale where I came thiiiisss close to stopping at a shady bar called Polecats.  Because, come on, that's a once-in-a-lifetime kind of opportunity) - Jer immediately hopped on a plane for Hungary where he's been all week for work.  Prior to his trip, his already damaged back went on strike, flipped him the bird, and gave up.  The past year of finishing the house and then immediately working on fences, clearing pasture, and building the lean-to's for the barn just pushed things over the edge.  Between my work stress and his back, we've been a sorry pair.  And more than ever, I have those nagging feelings that I'm always neglecting or forgetting something.  Did the laundry go into the dryer?  Did I leave the radio on?  Is the hose near the chicken house turned off?  Did I lock the gate into the goat pasture?  Can I trim hooves this weekend?  Is the chicken coop too dirty?  Did I change the animal water yesterday?  Do I have a presentation at the office today?

And on, and on, and on.

Lately, there've been lots of mentions about balance and choosing this for that or whether certain choices are worth the choosing if they lead to the constant concern that everything's being managed.  From the outside looking in, I'm sure it seems things here are scattered and without purpose, or that we do a lot of things only so-so.  Like we're half-assers.  I'm ok with that.  Also, keeping up appearances in regards to order stopped mattering as soon as we started spending weekends around campfires at the land, and I found myself in a perpetual state of disarray, smudged with ashes, dirt, or manure.  It doesn't matter what it all looks like as long as there's a (genuine) smile on the face.  I figure that as long as I have that, then I have almost everything.

Yesterday, in an effort to multi-task, I allowed the goats and puppies to join me down at the garden where I put in one full hour of weeding.  This consisted of pulling two weeds, looking up, screaming "BRUCE!  BETTY!  GET BACK HERE!"  pulled two more weeds, stood up to run and pull goats off the pear tree, pulled two more weeds, "BRUCE, BETTY! GET BACK HERE!" - played like a skipping record.  I followed this activity by walking back up to the house, tugging the little green wagon behind me, and used it to load the salt block and chicken scratch I'd just bought from Callahan's.  As soon as the back door of the car was open, three goats jumped inside - the fourth jumped into the wagon.  Despite this, I managed to haul the bags of feed into the wagon, causing a flurry of goat curiosity as they tore at the paper bags, feed spilling onto the ground.  Four goat tails wagged furiously.

It's a lot of chaos a lot of the time.  In the moments where peace is restored, my lap is usually filled with one or two goats, a guard puppy standing behind me, paw on my shoulder.  A chicken struts by.  The wind blows through the trees.  A hawk circles.  The sun sets.  We do it all over again.

Soon, the routines will become more, not less, complicated, as we add milkings and more animals to the mix.  I love my animals fiercely.  The problem is that they're not as charming and pastoral as is conveyed on the pages of Martha Stewart magazines when she does a "tour of the farm" (I'm sure she's got more than one).  In those pictures the animals all have distinct animal spaces and are well behaved, plump, and happy.  The gardens are trellised and manicured.  You can hear the bees humming off the page.

The reality looks more like the tattered old quilt stored at the bottom of a box in storage, or the kind found neatly folded in a stack at an antique shop.  It's stitched together by hand and the fabric comes from torn up pillowcases, sweaters, table cloths - whatever was laying around and held some meaning.  The colors don't match.  It's not until you open her up and spread the thing out that a pattern emerges and it looks just beautiful.  Hoping for the order and bliss of Martha's Bedford farm, all glossy on the magazine pages - it's the worst kind of decadence.  That's not what this is about.  I'm in it for the goat burps, the horrible donkey wheezes, the chill of finding entrails after a coyote strike in the woods - the raw stuff.  It might not photograph as pretty but it's real, and it's messy, and it's absolute crazy. stupid. love.