Friday, August 31, 2012

One Year Old

Every once in awhile I still get a cockeyed expression from folks when they find out where I live.  It's usually in downtown-y types of venues.  Usually in a work related environment where extremely non-agricultural conversations are going on and people pick at their clothes while sitting at a conference table, worried that a stray pet hair might show up as a shock of white against a black suit.

"You live where?"  Eyes widen.  And you're given a second look for the first time as if all preconceptions have just been tossed out the window and now, suddenly, you're a blank - but intriguing - slate.  You could be anybody now to those people who pegged you one way or another.  But one thing is certain; you are a contradiction.

I don't mind any of it.  In fact, like most of us, I'm just as guilty of assumptions made about folks based on first impressions and all that other stuff.  It's human nature to quickly categorize the people and faces that pop in and out of our lives each day.  I believe it's part of an inherent need to keep things orderly in our minds by creating labels and classifications - a sort of kingdom, phylum, and class of our society.  

Exactly one year ago, we broke ground in the back corner part of 15 acres of land that, together, are shaped like a crooked "L."  It's a rough road back to where the house went up, a spot everyone tried to talk us out of for reasons I still don't understand.  Exactly one year ago tonight we set our alarms for early in order to meet the builders in the woods.  They showed up at 7am.  We'd already been standing around nervously for an hour, eaten our fresh baked kolaches for breakfast, eyes puffy and blurred from a night of little sleep.  How can you sleep the night before your future starts?

It seems more appropriate, on our home's first birthday, to show a picture of it.  But it's not the anniversary of wood and metal I want to celebrate.  Instead, this first birthday is about the vehicle it's been for everything else.  Tonight, I climbed on top of the round bale after we took a walk to the pond trailed by goats, dogs, and donkeys.  From up high, I captured the bizarre and magnificent cloud formations that rolled in just at sunset - a suitably dramatic gift for this anniversary.

To the woman who sat bewildered next to me yesterday: You wanna know why I live here?  You think it's just because I like chickens?

Happy birthday to our delightfully strange house and to the delightfully strange life it's afforded. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

It's just real good

Less farming - more spreadsheets.  Less time in the pasture - more meetings.  Walked to the fence after a a particularly stressful work call, just to pet the donkeys.  Thank goodness for donkeys.  Plus, thank goodness for working from home where I can play good songs, real loud, on tough days.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Not Suitable for Children

No one adequately prepared me for what it would mean to "own a male goat."  By male - I mean the uncastrated, fully-hormoned variety.  I'm talking about a billy goat - you know- the kind you've seen in cartoons with exaggerated, wiry goatees (now I see where that derived from...), the bouffant top knot, the spiky mohawk down the ridge of the back. Except, it's not exaggerated.  It's the real deal.

To be fair to those gentle souls in my life who warned me; I was warned.  In fact, on my bedside table still sit the goat books I read for months before acquiring this little crew of four.  In varying degrees of severity each warned that, despite their angelic appearance at birth, intact (uncastrated) male goats would eventually become oily, smelly, hormone-driven forces to be reckoned with.  I understood all this - obviously!  So many experts agreed on this point that it must actually be fact.  We discussed the alternatives to keeping an intact male.  If you want goats then there's two camps into which you might fall: the goats-as-pets keeper or the goats-as-producer keeper.  Meaning: you either want them to have babies, or you could care less.  As we (Ok, me, just me) are determined to produce dairy products off this little parcel, then there was never any doubt that our goats must have babies since, you know, you don't get milk without kids (I only mention this because people so often ask, "You have baby goats??  That's so cute!  So how much milk are you getting out of those babies?"  It doesn't work that way for people - and it don't work that way for goats, neither - or any mammalian creature).  Therefore, we needed to somehow endeavor to make babies spring forth from the female goats.  Short of immaculate conception, which I now truly wish were possible, we would need to somehow have access to the boy kinds of goatlings.  Many goat owners just keep female goats and closely watch their estrus cycles* - an activity that sounded about as exciting to me as watching slugs being salted.  It requires inspecting the goat's vulva*  on a seasonal basis.  Doing things like watching for arousal* (Ready for me to stop yet?  Yes, me too).  After scientifically determining that the goat is in estrus* - should you have no billy at your immediate disposal - you must load your goat in the car and drive her to a billy at which point you must pay cash money to watch the goats breed* (*Note: these words make me uncomfortable).

Now that we've laid the facts bare, perhaps you'll understand why I chose to just go ahead and have a billy at my disposal.  Not only do these scientific inspections make me uncomfortable, but I'm lazy.  Let's be honest.  While I'll still have to be a scientist about my goats' cycles to make sure they breed at the appropriate time, it can be slightly more imprecise since my billy will be right there.  As in, on my property.  There's no embarrassment of kicking at rocks on a stranger's property, awkwardly waiting for nature to take its course while we make small talk, then shake hands and sign papers to prove that yes, in fact, the deed was done.

So here's the deal.  Despite all of the literature I read and warnings I received about the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde-like transformation that would occur with my buckling and despite how difficult a buck can be when he is in rut (I believe "turned on" is the laymen's term) - despite all of these things - I bought Boss.  Because, and I can assure you without a shadow of doubt, when I met little baby Boss it was abundantly clear that he would not under any circumstance become odorous.  Magically, my little Boss would not sprout wiry goatee hairs, nor would he shoot pee all about his face and onto the back of his legs.  This precious little dude, denying all of the genetic inclinations coded into his DNA, would never accidentally spray pee onto me, rub against me amourously, stick his tongue out sideways and emit the most profane sounds that did ever come out of vocal chords.  He would never do that.

Except he just started doing it.

Lord help me.  Boss has turned from buckling into buck and is fast approaching full billy goat status.  He is more enthralled with his own special purpose than with food and water.  He now follows a strict personal hygiene regiment that begins with washing his face in his own urine and ends with - well - it's worse than that.  I invite you to google "goat in rut" and let the experts on wikipedia enlighten you in a way that I would just rather not, frankly.  The object of most of his affection has fallen to our poor little Willy Boots, the smallest of the bunch who is also male, but is castrated and is therefore spared from the torment of his own hormones.  Aside from having to withstand Boss's frequent and aggressive advances, Willy lives a rather carefree life jumping, spinning, and spitting out indigestible mesquite beans.

The lovely couple

For now, at least, Boss has no interest in other goats of the female variety.  But lately Willy has learned how to escape Boss's advances and so, sadly, his attention has turned to me, the only woman in his life who will come near him.  I now must make time for, not one, but two showers each day.  I must be careful not to touch him beyond a friendly pat on the neck lest I encourage his, er, attention.  Need I go on?  No, it's best I don't.  In fact, if you've even gotten this far without making a completely disgusted face (stop and check your expression right now), then I applaud your friendship and understanding.  Or, more likely, you own a billy too.  And you're probably one of the people who warned me.  Whoever you are, wherever you are, whatever it is that you said or say in the future - I promise - I'll listen next time.     

Fool me once.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

When Enough's (never) Enough

Two days ago, the direction of the wind changed.  The leaves are crispy on their branches, but suddenly it's not from heat.  I smell October in the trees.  Just like that - it's fall here - almost, almost.  Summer was easy on us relative to last summer but relative also to most summers I remember.  Only once did the thermometer register above 110* - and that's a luxury in these parts.  This summer alone we received 15" of rain, at least.  It took our driveway and, this weekend, some of our baby chickens.  We found them in a pile, caught in one last, futile motion - a distressing discovery on an early Sunday morning.  We suspect heart attacks from thunder. 

Nothing out here is served up in moderation - not the weather, not the insects, not the animal mortality, not even the excessive beauty that is always in everything if you stop for one full second to see it.  For example, I caught a dewy eastern sunrise yesterday morning that is pointless to describe.   

Lately, work is catching up to me.  And by work I mean my "day job," as in the stuff that helps pay for sun rises and piles of chickens and bouncing goats.  In fact, today I had to pull a suit from the closet for one of those meetings this morning - the type that makes me sleepless the night before and causes my steady hands to shake.  I used to take this stuff in stride as being all part of the gig, but more frequently - and after a year of extremely stress-free work - I'm having trouble finding my footing.  My suit was, literally, dusty.  I cleaned it off, slipped it on, then quickly changed into something less rigid.  I'm not that person anymore.  The clothes just don't fit - in more ways than one.    

It's important I think, when talking about work life vs. life life to mention my gratefulness for work - especially the sort that is mostly autonomous and normally not too stressful.  For now, I can send an email from the porch, feed the chickens, and join a conference call at the kitchen table  No complaints here about that.  But the intent and purpose are gone.  It's mechanical at this point.  Unfortunately, chasing off roosters and watching the sun rise don't pay the bills. 

In these pictures, off in the distance, are treetops and hills from the property behind us - a 105 acre ranch that's been dormant for no telling how long.  No one around here remembers it ever being used.  The 70 acre forest was never cleared.  It's just a long expanse of native prairie and hardwood.  And it's for sale.  The owners are willing to sell parcels - not small chunks - but small enough I've been sitting on the porch staring like a hungry wolf in front of raw steak.  Smacking my lips, rubbing my palms together, salivating.  For me, the thought of more land triggers a response so strong it proves psychological theory better than Pavlov's dog.  What we could do with more land - I could list off on all ten fingers - none of which is feasible within the near future.  The land itself isn't feasible without another few decades of donning dusty suits and waking up early for sweaty-palmed work meetings and sleepless-anxiety-filled nights.  So, what's it all worth?  When is enough enough?  

Don't get the wrong idea here, it's mostly a pipe dream but realistic enough to be just within a very uncomfortable reach.  Since we've moved here, I've become fiercely protective of things like views.  We're in this for long haul living.  But it's asking too much to preserve this view forever.  Maybe it's asking too much to hope that someday the day job means dirt-digging and chicken tending and fence repair.  Maybe not.  It's worth a consideration, at least, no matter how fleeting.  So lately, chances are good you can find me squinting out towards the east.  For now I'm just thinking about what could be growing on those hills with the right stewardship and vision.  I'm thinking about ways to replace that suit without sacrificing security.  
It's not exactly taking this life in my own two hands, but it's a start.     

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Clink, clink

Today a breeze blew in - not quite from the north - but just cool enough it whispered: "Faaallll..."  After working outside all day to build pastures and repair fencing, we hopped on the tractor together to dump some rocks in the woods.  At the end of these days there's no energy left for talking, so without words we clinked drinks together up on the tractor - a two beer salute.  To Saturdays, and good work, and a front yard covered in more animals and grass than trash (whew. finally).  How about that.  

Friday, August 17, 2012

A Screen Door

My uncle (the artist, guitar player, furniture maker, and carpenter) is in town this week and offered to help us finally install the infamous vintage screen door I've dragged around central Texas.  This is no ordinary screen door.  It's 4ft wide and weighs over 50 pounds - made from solid, thick wood and looks just dinged up enough to convince me it lived a long life on the porch of someone's ranch house.  I found it among a pile of other doors in a salvage warehouse in Austin over two years ago.  It had the traditional barn-like "x" shape on the front that I'd already drawn into the plan for the house.  It was heavy and substantial.  I had a feeling it would creak a lot when being opened and closed.  Perfect.

The biggest problem it immediately posed was in its size.  4ft wide doors aren't made standard - anywhere.  I know this for a fact due to a weeks long search last summer.  So my cheap-ish screen door now required a less-than-cheap-ish custom-made front door.  Lots of my "low-cost" salvage choices resulted in creative solutions and expensive tweaks.  Oops.  We discussed the option of cutting our losses, selling the screen door and doing something conventional - like a door and screen from Home Depot.  That wasn't hair brained enough for my complicated sensibilities.  Besides, I just had a feeling about this one.  Its heft and girth felt significant and utilitarian.  The extra foot of width meant our door would provide a passage wide enough for almost anything.  I finally found a company able to custom make a wood and glass front door at a rock bottom price.  Since the house has been built - the screen has leaned against a wall in the attic for months.  It's a small, aesthetic thing - but I was ready to get her big x-marked face onto the front of the house.  With fall coming soon, we want the ability to keep the door open and let the breeze flow through.

Being vintage, slightly warped, and ridiculously crooked, my uncle spent yesterday afternoon squaring her up and then expertly popping her into place.  She opens smooth but is heavy enough, you really do have to push her.  There's quite a creak when she slams back into place.  It's a very farm-y/home-y screen door.  I pushed through it to bring my uncle a mint iced tea yesterday on the front porch, realizing my deeply rooted desire to be a southern lady serving tea on porches.  I've mentioned before the importance of porches, but it turns out they're incomplete without a creaking screen door that leads you to them.    

And yes, screens will be replaced and paint will be re-touched.  Someday.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Common Interests

I met Kimberly in May of 2011.  After my daily perusal of the Craigslist "farm and ranch" section, an ad grabbed my attention - it read a little something like: "Milking classes: We milk Alpine/Nubian goats and Dexter cows (I wanted Alpine/Nubian goats and I HAD Dexter cows).  We want to help people learn about homesteading (I WANTED to learn about homesteading).  At the milking class we will cover the basics of dairy goat and cow health and dairy handling and each participant will milk a goat and a cow (!!!!!!)."

I responded to the ad and signed up immediately.  I attended another one of her classes this spring and, since then, we've become friends.  It's always funny to look at the people in your life and draw a line back to the place where you met, why you struck up a conversation, how you became friends.  For most of us, it's school or work, maybe even the person who stands next to you in Zumba class.  Sometimes it's a friend of a friend met over happy hour cocktails.  But I'm learning that, in the world of agriculture, a lot of it has to do with answering ads, doing research, swallowing pride, and asking questions.  For this bunch, we're more often on the farm than at the gym and our favorite happy hour bar is the liquor cabinet and front porch.  Don't peg us as anti-social people, in fact, I challenge you to gather a group of more enthusiastic, supportive, and friendly folks than those who opt for scratch made living.  There's something about sharing the wealth (knowledge) that makes us real, damn happy.  While it's unlikely we'll rub shoulders and meet under the usual circumstances, we're excited to know like-minded individuals.  Essentially, we want more of us - people out in the world who share this common interest and can swap anecdotes, remedies, and ideas.  This is a way of life.  It's a choice that is a burden and a blessing at once.  It requires allies.

Yesterday I drove out to Star Creek Country after work to meet the cow and calf pair that I'm bringing home sometime this fall.  A long time ago - at the beginning of all this - I wanted a family milk cow.  For a variety of reasons - some my fault - some no one's fault - it became clear Matilda's natural sassy-ness could be dangerous in the milk stand.  I didn't have the time, knowledge, or energy to turn her into the cow I wanted for this family.  And there was a pretty good chance no amount of work could turn her into
 a milk cow at all.

Around the time we put her up for sale, Kimberly decided to downsize her own milking herd a bit and offered me her little dun Madaline, a cow I'd met twice and fell in love with immediately.  After calving three weeks ago, we learned that we'll bring Madaline and her baby heifer Rodeo Queen (This is her true name.  And it is amazing) home to our farm early in the fall once we've had a chance to finish some more structures and possibly get her bred again.

To acquire a dairy cow in this manner - one whose history you know, whose personality you absolutely trust, with a heifer calf at her side and another one possibly on the way, and from a friend whose support you can count on to get you through the early days of learning to milk - that's impossible to replicate.  Last night Kimberly let me spend time milking Madaline myself while Rodeo stood nearby, being trained on a halter and lead rope.  We stayed in the barn for a while when milking was done.  Kimberly collected eggs from the rogue nest under the barn stairs, I carried the milk bucket, we sweated and swatted flies and stepped in manure.  It's been a long, long time since I've been to a happy hour - but it'll be tough to top this after-work conversation and company.  Making friends in the country requires a strategy more direct than just being co-workers.  I'm so glad I wrote to her almost 2 years ago and said, "Hi.  Can you help me get started with this life?"  Even happier she responded with, "Come on out!"

These are slow and old-fashioned friendships - the kinds with Kimberly and Fran - where time's spent standing around the barn chatting while the sun sets, or in the dairy talking cheese while goats peer inside at the door.  We prop each other up a little.  I've spent countless hours this spring on the phone with Kimberly for emergency medical advice or suggestions.  Tomorrow, Fran is teaching me some rudimentary veterinary skills to check my goats for parasites (common goat ailment).  If you're getting started out here, too, cast a wide net and reach out to others already in the thick of it.  You can do this alone - but why would you?  On behalf of this homestead and the growing community sprinkled throughout the country, we look forward to hearing from you. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

This Day

This day started as it always does, with animal feedings - the inside dogs first, then bowls set out for puppies, then buckets filled for goats, then the walk up to the hen house where scratch is tossed out on the dirt and the big wooden ramp Jer built is unlocked and lowered so a bundle of feathers and fluff can stumble out and stomp down into the new day.

Next comes a peek into the chicken tractor where 5 new peeps are living, lavender and blue orpingtons (I have a weakness for blue tinged chickens) - a gift to myself after discovering the neighbors hatched them out 2 weeks ago.  On tiny blue stick legs they wobble around their mason jar filled with food, scratching at the dirt and peeping, just round balls of gray fluff and bright black eyes.

Finally it's time to release the goats and puppies from the night pen.  The six beasts line up at the gate.  I'm greeted by four distinct goat voices, Willy's always the highest pitched.  It rings out like a little bell above the others.  Once the gate is open, goats and Pyrenees spill out and lope towards their respective food bowls.  Four goat heads dip into buckets of feed until Pearl Snaps, our herd queen, begins the morning ritual of head butting her herd mates in the sides and neck.  The most important part of the goats' day is re-establishing hierarchy.  On Sunday I set out loose minerals and salts, a treat they've already learned to run for as soon as the feed buckets are empty.  From the porch I can make out four wagging tails and hear lips smacking around the mineral feeder.

By now the puppies, who are fed on the porch, have emptied their bowls and moved on to a chase around, around, around, around the house, down the driveway, sliding into metal roofing laid out for the barn.  They roll together and look like one white ball of fur tumbling in the grass.  Suddenly Betty stands and jogs to the pasture gate where she flattens her body and slides under, into the big pasture.  She runs down the path towards the pond.  Splash!  Momentarily she reappears wet and happy.  Bruce jogs near the grazing goats and sits like a sentry.  Watching.

This day I clean the hen house and bring dirty bedding into the garden we opened last week for the donkeys.  They've eaten each plant down to roots and deposited manure throughout.  I drop the bedding unceremoniously somewhere in the middle.  The tiller will churn the contents together in a few weeks.  New plants will go in.  And the garden starts again.  By 2pm I'll pull on my jeans and boots and head into Austin for a late afternoon work meeting and coffee.  By 5, I'm pointing west towards Spicewood and a visit with Kimberly.  I'm meeting a calf and milking her mama - my new cow - this afternoon.  In a few months, we'll have our own dairy here at Bee Tree and another set of animals to add to the morning routine.  My days will start earlier.  They'll likely end later too.  I can hardly wait.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012


Egg from one of the baby chicks raised at the land.  They grow up so fast.

Life as Flipbook

August is here in a big way.  100 degree temps, gnats, west nile virus - the works!  In keeping with tradition, we've decided to start an epic undertaking (did we ever stop) just as the peak temperatures of the year start to, well, peak.  To the nauseating heat and humidity, we say: "You cannot stop us.  We are traditional people who follow tradition - so we must do the hardest work of the year outside.  Right now."  It's honorable to uphold tradition this way - right?  Like how last year we dug 1 million feet of water trench with a plastic cup?  And how the year before we put in 1 million feet of new fencing with only a hand shovel and toothpick?  No, no - I kid - but the memory of those events feels just that traumatic.

This August, it's barn finishing/pasture building time.  For the goats ("For YOUR goats" - Jer always reminds me).  It's because we love them so much.

Also, we love thinking of the day when they cannot climb atop our vehicles, urinate on the porch, eat the herb garden, and chase terrified chickens.  Obviously I paint a charming picture of goats - go out today and get a whole herd of your own!  It's also dishonest to constantly refer to "we" as if it's been a full-on team effort.  It really hasn't.  Jer's handled the brunt of this project, like most of them.  This weekend when I was laid up with a virus (Thankfully not west nile) he constructed one quarter of the roof structure for the awnings off the barn, managing to start securing roof panels on one end.  An impressive endeavor in all weather, but particularly now and with a bum shoulder and back.  What a guy.

Last night we finally got around to extracting some honey from the layers of comb tossed into a bag over a week ago.  We watched cups of liquid gold drain out from the colander, set on the bar in our kitchen, perched beneath the big warehouse lights Jer and his father hung together on Christmas day, suspended from the ceiling of a house that almost wasn't built - on land we almost didn't buy.  Honey extraction from the hive living in the backyard of a place you were this close to abandoning - it's not something we take for granted.  I'm not encouraging folks to walk around daily in a state of self-congratulatory wonderment, but sometimes, you've just got to take a step back and honor thyself.  We've come a long, long way baby.

Something about the honey extraction, or maybe it was the hour we spent wandering the property; it inspired Jer to play our blog photos on a slideshow setting.  Sitting at that bar, we watched the last four years whiz by like the pages of a little flip book.  You know the kind - where the flipping pages take still images and put them into motion.  Viewing the pictures this way we saw fields cleared in a snap, chicks sprout to laying hens, mesquite turn into tomatoes, a forest turn into a house.  It all seemed so logical and fluid, starting with a photo of those first chicks that rooted around the backyard of our house in Austin.

If you read the flip book version of anyone's life you yearn for, it looks effortless.  The stories jump from page to page, each little snippet connecting to the next until suddenly you have one linear tale.  In fact, I recently read the "Our Story" tab off the website of a favorite farm in which 20 years of a life spent farming was condensed into one paragraph.  I walked outside with stars in my eyes.  But so many missteps and middle parts are omitted when stories are told this way.  It's only the victories and highlights that generally are illustrated on the pages.  I have to remind myself of this each time I read an "Our Story" tab, especially the part where people were able to become "full time farmers."  For a while, they too probably donned conventional work attire and attended dry meetings under fluorescent lighting.  And they too spent a few Augusts dragging cedar trees.  All we see now though is the pretty path they cleared. 

I met a woman recently who went all misty upon learning that I live in the country and admitted to me that she always dreamed of some land and wanted out of her suburban lifestyle.  I just blinked at her.  "So move to the country."  She blinked back at me, "But, but it's so...but it's....but what if....but - how?"  I can't tell her story.  For her, I don't know anything about the how, or the why.   "I don't have any idea how.  But stop saying 'but' - that's a start."  I certainly don't mean to trivialize the levity of these types of decisions/changes/expenses/obligations.  I just know that starting with "but" isn't going to lead you to a pot of honey in the forest.  There was plenty of less-than-idyllic nonsense that occurred between our beginning and now - and now's still just a beginning, too.  Right now we're building shelters and pastures deep in the heart of the August heat.  Soon, though, I'll have a pretty picture of the finished product to add to our book.  Knowing you have to do the work to get there has always been a foolproof step towards progress.  Always.

Also - we named this place officially - not that it makes much difference.  I just couldn't envision "No Name Farm/Ranch" hanging from a cedar sign over our entry gate.  That name suited us back when we naively brought pitchforks to clear mesquite trees and were too bewildered by our purchase to do anything but drink Lone Star in lawn chairs.

So, we're calling her Bee Tree Farm.  By now, you've probably figured out why.