Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Growing Pains

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

Monday, May 27, 2013

A Slow Dance

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Rinse, Repeat

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

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

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

That's a lie, again.  Straight. Up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do it.

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

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

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

Sunday, April 21, 2013

10,000 Charges

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, April 15, 2013


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

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

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

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Suburban Sundays

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 25, 2013

Still Kicking

I wrote a long post this afternoon.  It included an explanation of the quadrants of my brain which, if you were wondering, is divided evenly between the following:

1. Emotion
2. Doing Things
3. Eating
4. Watching Friday Night Lights

The fourth and final quadrant is embarrassing, but I'm nothing if not honest here.  In this long post I explained that my Emotion brain quadrant was hibernating for the late winter, maybe into early spring.  It had a rough time, kids - give it a break.  The Doing Things quadrant was moving at a rate equivalent to running under water.  There was no point in bothering it with trivial tasks.  Which leaves the final two quadrants, kicked into overdrive and whizzing along at double speed. 

Anyway, the post disappeared.  I hit save and then "poof" it went into oblivion, floated through the interwebs, gone to some better place.  Probably it was divine intervention that the post - the first from me in a month - not be the one I present here as a re-introduction into our crazy-town farm world.  Late winter was cold and rough to us out here at Bee Tree Farm where our efforts emerge like modest buds on a tree.  There is so much stirring within the tightly bundled little leaves.  Give it time, give it time.  A little sun and water, hopes and prayers.  There's much to come.

For now, I've recently overcome a devastating bout of cheese failures; an extravagant concern on the face of things but a terrible blow for someone who re-lives every cold morning of bottle-feeding, shots administered, tears shed, babies birthed, hooves in the milk pail, each time she goes to start another batch of cheese.  Every drop of my goat milk is hard won, precious, precious, spectacular stuff.  After a month of beautiful cheese, the milk changed, and I lost my bearings.  Cheesemaking is some ancient alchemy I will never completely decipher.  It's influenced by the animal's diet, tempered by her stage of lactation, riddled with her natural pH, her basal temperature, and (I think) temperament.  It feels like sorcery at this point to procure anything consistent from raw milk which is, by definition, inconsistent.  Gallons of milk has been wasted in my novice attempts to diagnose the changes, and it wasn't until last night that my limited research yielded some (FINALLY) positive outcomes, the results of which are now brining away in the fridge.  How did I suddenly figure it out?  Who knows.  It probably has to do with the full moon or some other witchcraft that will never, ever make sense to me.  Regardless, I'm forging ahead.  I'm all in - or - in too deep.  I sighed for weeks over spongey, useless curd and watched the little goat herd jump and graze out the kitchen window.  What are you doing?  I thought this, repeatedly.  Then I ate some homemade yogurt and the world was right again. 

Starting out, back when I perched on the back porch in the Austin house, spending time with pet, backyard chickens, I read stories written by people who'd gone "back to the land" - written years after they went back out.  The beginning parts of their stories were always cast in an adorably rosy hue, with "aw shucks" sorts of realizations.  Whatever they were figuring out got figured out fast; stories were wrapped up in cute little morals.  It was darling but probably recalled by the authors from a distance that healed the rawness out of things.  The reality of beginnings is more painful.  Out here, it's the willingness to fail repeatedly that propels you forward but, no matter how I tell the story, beginnings stink - they just do, usually.

I've learned a lot about dairy this month only because the milk changed and the cheese failed.  We've poured countless hours of sweat equity into these animals; the return on investment being something intangibly valuable - something far greater than homemade dairy.  What is it, exactly?  I'll let you know as soon as I can articulate the concept.  The point is that I want it - badly.  Enough to withstand the gut punch of curdled milk - useless, wasted, beautiful milk.  Last night I talked to the cheese, I stirred with reverence, I tiptoed around the sacred steel pot while the rennet battled culture.
I tried again.

Pretty soon we'll have a sign on the fence, something more useful then what sits there now.  Probably the sort of advice I should have taken nearly five years ago (!) at the beginning of all this:
"Leave your pride at the gate, son."   

Sunday, March 24, 2013

They're Back

Taken on the game camera down by the tank.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

How to Make Cheese in Just 10 Easy Steps

So.  You like, no you love, cheese.  I mean, for someone like you, cheese has become its own dietary planet, a new group within your food pyramid.  It's not enough that cheese is accessible just about anywhere you would purchase normal groceries.  It's not enough that all of the hard, tedious work has been done for you by people who studied in the French Alps, people who walked in mountains with goats, who took chemistry to understand the science of cheese.  For you, it's not about perfection, it's about turning one thing into something else right there at home.  Perhaps you also sniff at the shiny packages in the cheese aisle.  "It can't be that hard," you shrug.  After all, it's just adding some culture to some milk, applying heat.  Stirring a little.  A child could do that.  Without understanding that you are being an over-confident smart-ass, you try to make some cheese.  And the truth is, actually, it really is incredibly easy.

Step 1: Get milk.  Or maybe you've got milk?  Where's that milk from?  Did you buy it at the supermarket?  If yes, then it's pasteurized.  Is it ultra pasteurized?  IT IS?!  Turns out that it's not so easy to make cheese from that stuff.  So you should probably do what I did, in an effort to be more straightforward about the process, in an effort to bypass the hassle of tracking down some low-heat pastuerized or raw milk - I just bought a goat.  Easy, right?

Step 2: Get a goat/cow.  Depending on the age of the animal, you might need to prepare yourself to wait just a bit longer than expected for cheese.  I decided to take the very long route in order to save some cash.  I bought baby goats for almost nothing from a dairy.  It wasn't until after making this affordable purchase that I came to understand the exorbitant cost of feeding baby goats.  You can bypass this step, however, by purchasing an adult animal that's already full of milk.  Voila!  You're nearly there with home cheese making!  This is also an appropriate time to scratch your head and re-consider whether it's time to just go ahead and buy some of that store bought milk.  Nah.  Too easy.

Step 3: (Skip this step if you went ahead and got the adult animal).  Raise the goat/cow.  This will lead to months worth of anecdotes related to animal escapes, animal illness, general animal care, animals dancing atop vehicles, animals ruining gardens, animals falling asleep in your lap, you falling in love with the animals.  It's likely that almost a year has now passed since the time you first decided to make cheese.  As you pull the goat off the car, ask yourself, is this still worth all the trouble?  (*Note: there is still no cheese).

Step 4: Breed the animal.  This is tricky.  It might require that you get another animal just to breed the cheese-producing animal.  Once you are confident the deed is done, step back and eye your goat/cow suspiciously for a month or two.  Is anything going on in there?  When you are certain something is, in fact, going on in there, then it's time to get excited because you are now finally much closer to cheese.

Step 5: Purchase cheese books and equipment.  I recommend buying only one or two books and then relying on the internet for the rest.  All of the basic equipment can be purchased at places like Target, and the exotic, fancy stuff can be found online at various cheese stores like Getculture.com.  At around this time you'll want to start reading some of those cheese books.  It may quickly become evident that cheesemaking is perhaps more of a science than art.  Or maybe it's more of an art than science?  You consider buying barometers and building a dairy room in order to control temperature, humidity, and mold spore growth.  You wring your hands over the possibility that cheese making might not be your bag.  In fact, after two chapters of the book, you start to resent cheese making.  You tear open a little log of cheese purchased from the store and start nervous-eating.  Hey, that cheese is pretty good, was relatively cheap, and already made!  Why in the world would you make your own cheese?!  What were you thinking?  Your thoughts are probably interrupted at this time by frantic bleating from outside.  Something is wrong with the goat/cow.  Sounds like a baby goat/cow might be coming.

Step 6: Deliver a baby goat/cow.  It's pretty much as easy as it sounds.  Unless it isn't, in which case you should go ahead and plan for the worst.  Bring into the barn with you towels, latex gloves, iodine, a cell phone with the number for a farm vet, and a small flask of something to calm the nerves.  Your nerves, not the animal's nerves, just to be clear.  Prepare yourself for some gory moments, some scary moments, and then some really delightful moments and keep your eye on the prize: cheese!  (Wait, didn't step 5 convince us that we don't want to make cheese?!).  Oops, too late. 

Step 7:  Wait a week.  Yep.  All that anxious time building pastures, raising animals, reading about the wonders and mysteries of cheese making, and now you have to wait some more?  Calm down, what's another week?  The first week, the milk is no good for cheese making since it's full of sticky, high protein stuff called colostrum that the baby animal truly does need more than you, no matter how strong your addiction to cheese.  Really.

Step 8: Milk the animal.  It's not advisable to milk your animal in its natural habitat (pasture), which is sometimes called "field-milking."  Field milking can lead to all kinds of pitfalls unless you're working with a well-trained animal.  During that year you waited (im)patiently for cheese, you hopefully wrangled/cajoled/bribed someone into building you a proper milk stand or milking stanchion.  Lure your darling animal into the stand using something delicious.  We use grain and alfalfa.  It works 80% of the time.  Grab the shiny milking pail that you probably purchased one year ago, along with the goat/cow, and finally put it to good use.  Attempt to procure milk from the animal in whichever way you were taught, or googled, or You Tubed, or learned growing up (lucky!).  Prepare to dodge a hoof.  Prepare for the shiny milk pail to accidentally become a hoof rest or a goat boot.  Re-adjust your strategy and gently pull the animal towards you.  Look down into your now manure-encrusted milk pail where less than 1/4 cup of soiled milk has pooled.  Weep quietly into the side of the animal.  Release her back into the pasture.  Try again tomorrow.  Go to bed and dream of cheese.

Step 9: Gather the milk.  It's now been probably about three weeks since those babies were born.  You've been kicked in the face, stomped in the hand, peed on, screamed at, and drenched with rogue sprays of milk.  Somehow you stopped resenting the animal and the animal stopped resenting you.  You now have a fridge full of milk.  Pull out the stainless cheese making pot purchased a year ago when you bought the milking pail, around when you bought the animal.  Pull out all of the cheese making accoutrements you've accumulated for just this moment.  This might include your little cheese book, some rennet (to make the whey separate from the milk), the culture, a thermometer, a slotted spoon.  Read directions; follow them exactly or follow them loosely.  Unleash your natural talent, bowing your head over the milk there in the pot.  It took some guts to get here, no matter how that cheese ends up tasting.  Heat, stir, sprinkle, cover with cloth, peek in at the curd.  Try to wipe that smile off your face.

Step 10: Taste your cheese.  It's probably been about three days now since step 9.  A few more things happened, if you followed those directions at all.  Probably you cut some curd, you stirred the curd, you scooped and drained it.  Probably all of the little plants near your front door and some of the other animals benefited from the cheese by-products, if you were kind enough to pour whey over their food.  Go to the pantry and open a box of crackers, pour a glass of wine.  Smear the fresh cheese onto the cracker.  Take a bite.  So, what do you think?  Is cheese making art or chemistry?  More chemistry than art?  Does it matter?  Because you realize, in that first bite, catching the movement of your goats/cows out of the window: it's neither.  There's a little magic there in that cheese.  Just magic.  And it's really as simple as that.

*NOTE:  You can bypass most of steps 2-9, stopping briefly on step 5, if you go ahead and buy stuff from the store - either the milk or the cheese.  But what's the fun in that?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Farm Hands

My day job makes daily milking impossible.  That is to say: it makes it impossible if I choose to abide by natural sleep patterns and such.  Today, I needed to be south of Houston before 10am making a morning milking completely out of the question unless waking somewhere around 4am in order to squeeze in the chore, then a little self-grooming, time enough for some coffee and toast before the 3 hour drive into the big city.  By the time I arrived, I'd just completed the solitary journey from here to there.  It's a distance that cuts through piney woods and rolling prairie and, in some places, the blue bonnets have started rising up out of this confused late-winter soil.  I stopped at Hruska's bakery/gas station in Ellinger for a box of kolaches (it's unforgivable to pass through Czech country without buying some) and leaned against the car while I filled the tank, chewed on a poppy seed kolache just when a weathered rancher stepped out of a busted old farm truck.  He looked sturdy as oak but his back was so gnarled from wear that he leaned sideways.  His leather face considered me for a full second before he nodded his head; the twitch of a smile flickered before he shuffled on inside.  The way his legs bowed, I'd guess he spent the better parts of his life on horseback, and as his pearl snap shirt fluttered against stained jeans, one quick hand reached back to tuck it in.  I caught sight of his hand then, so deeply lined, grime caked in the nail bed, trimmed down to the quick.  It was skin that had baked in the sun, been cut up and bitten.  A good, strong, storied hand.

The click of a full tank knocked me out of a reverie.  Popped the rest of the pastry in my mouth, wiped hands on my skirt and got back in the car.  By the time I reached the meeting, everyone was already arranged around a table, pressed neatly and ready for a day of polite discussions.  I went around for introductions ("Hi y'all, how are yeeeww?"), shaking hands, saying hello.  The women tapped manicured fingers against the table or used them to tap out texts into phones.  Most of the men were equally well-groomed.  Inspecting my own hands I realized how dirty they probably appear to strangers.  My dry skin is cracked from constant washing but there's still places where the dirt grinds in and stains the creases.  No matter my vigilance, a faint black line fills each nail bed.  The nails themselves are kept trimmed close now because of milking, since I think it's just rude to milk an animal with fingernails.  Each hand currently has wounds healing.  One is from an unfortunate tangle with mesquite, but the other?  There's no telling.  As long as the hand works, then it's not worth further discussion.

But I did worry momentarily today, whether the state of my hands would somehow be noticed, such a stark juxtaposition against my clothes, my makeup.  I shook hands timidly at first and then thought, aw hell, let them see.  Let people ask, let me tell them the truth about how the other half of me lives.  I sat in the meeting for four hours, discussing policy, rules, regulations, but my mind was back in Ellinger.  If only I had walked up to the man I saw outside Hruska's.  If only I had met his eye, introduced myself, shook his hand.  If I follow you, where would we go?  Can I borrow your hat and perch there on the back of your truck?  I can help you feed the cows, if that's where you're headed.  I can stand out in the field and watch this storm come in, pray for rain with you over the oat seeds just sowed.  We can sip coffee and eat kolaches in the pasture, talk grain and hay prices.  And you can read me stories from your hands, or teach me something that they know about mending fences.

It's not that my day job is bad work; it is actually fairly exceptional.  But it's not really my work, anymore.  Answering phone calls and facilitating meetings feels silly compared to the important job of tending the animals, sitting on the milk stand at sunrise, carrying the pail inside, turning the milk into food.  The past few weeks were deeply exhausting.  Emotionally.  Physically.  At the meeting today I stared at my hands, turned them over - palm down then palm up - looking for new lines, seeing if scars have emerged yet from this recent chapter here.  After being dormant so long, these hands delivered a goat, trimmed hooves, milked (milked, milked), carried babies, rescued hens, and dug a grave for one of my dearest animals.  Do those stories tell there, somewhere?  Are they etched across my face, yet?  Will years of this life make me stoic and hard or strong and sassy?  At what point can I no longer keep the day work separate from the farm - a feeling that is a pressure building, like a dam just before breaking, me pushing against it with all my strength.

Someday, I hope "professional development" will mean introducing myself to ranchers outside bakeries in small towns.  I hope that jumping into the back of a truck for a drive out to the barn will represent more of a "growth opportunity" then a distraction.  I hope day dreams on long drives to meetings become less fiction, more biography.  Does anyone know how to write that story?     

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Too! Much! Cute!

*Thanks again for the video, Cheryl!

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Be brave

Pearl was acting funny yesterday morning.  She seemed to be "off her feed" as farm-y people call it, a very literal way to say she wasn't eating.  I watched her dip her face into the food a few times, fake a bite and then let grain sort of dribble out of her mouth before she wandered slowly into the woods.  This behavior combined with the fact that her udder had doubled in size the day before made me certain that something was brewing.  Jeremy's mother had already planned a visit in the morning and just as she drove up, I led Pearl from the woods and into the kidding pen.  Just in case.  With the luck I've been having lately, however, I knew there was a good chance nothing would happen and I had been duped again.  As always, time would tell.

We sat in the pen with Pearl for over an hour talking.  Cheryl perched on the edge of a hay bale, I sat on the ground, leaning against the barn.  Chickens crowed, dogs barked, the cow mooed.  We talked about public school accountability since we both work in education and care about these sorts of things.  It was a welcome distraction from the elephant in the room, which was actually just the little goat lying on her side next to me.  By yesterday morning I no longer had the emotional capital necessary for any more drama and was hoping desperately things would go according to all the pictures from my numerous goat books.

Pearl started pushing at 11:45 and by 12:15, one little baby was born - a girl - Bee.  She delivered without any help from us and immediately started acting maternal, something that completely shocked me as I always suspected Pearl would abandon her babies.  She only barely tolerates me and has never had any use or concern for other goats.  For five months I've been preparing myself for taking care of Pearl's rejected babies.  Her behavior was, therefore, completely unexpected.  After cleaning Bee and helping her stand, it was clear there was another one coming and Pearl laid back down, acting much more strained this time.  After a few minutes of inspecting her nether regions we both agreed that what seemed to be emerging was not, in fact, the little hoof and nose that we were expecting.  Was that an ear?  The side of a head?  Please don't be a tail, I whispered audibly enough that Cheryl responded, "Surely not, that must be an ear."  With one more push, a tail, bottom and two tucked up legs were clearly visible.  Pearl jumped to her feet and let out a terrible scream.  She started walking away from us, a baby goat's bottom hanging from her backside.  Next to a c-section situation, breech was up there on my list of Top Five Worst Case Scenarios, and I literally heard ringing sounds blare in my head.  Without much thought or memory of advice, I grabbed latex gloves and reached in with both hands, sweeping my fingers in to find the legs that were tucked up.  I hooked them with a finger and pulled back gently.  They easily fell straight out just as Pearl fell back on her side.  "Pull it!" Cheryl urged from behind.  Pull it?  How hard?  Would that kill Pearl? Would that kill the baby?  Could I just go please take a nap?  Who needs a drink?

I suddenly remembered vividly a passage read in a book.  Breech babies often have lungs filled with fluid and a greater chance of death if they're not pulled immediately.  That gave me enough courage to grab and pull without further consideration.  An enormous baby boy came out and lay still, even after I cleaned his face, nose and mouth.  Grabbing his hind legs, I stood up and gently hung him upside down, swinging him side to side, nowhere confident enough to spin in a circle (I've seen pictures.  It's very acrobatic).  Within seconds he started to cough and wake up.   He was breathing.  I handed him over to Pearl and she took care of the rest.

We sat in the barn with them for much longer.  An hour? 3 hours?  I don't remember.  At some point we stumbled inside for iced tea and snacks.  By the time Cheryl went home it was already time for evening chores, followed by a quick shower to clean off the afterbirth, smack my face a few times, put on some mascara, blow dry my hair.  I had dinner plans.  I'd be damned if I was going to miss out on a glass of wine and gossip because of the baby goats.  Before driving away, I stopped by the pen one more time to make sure Pearl still understood she was a mother and had not reverted back to her old goat-hating-self.  She called out softly to me and stood up, the placenta I'd been waiting to see fell out with a loud and gory, "plop."  Then (do you have a weak stomach?) she began to eat it.  I sighed.  Heavily.  I was wearing a silk tunic, non-farm jeans, nice boots.  For the first time in almost a week, I had on lipstick.  Sparkly earrings.  I needed one night to be clean and well-fed, and the only thing now standing between me and a tiramisu was a pile of placenta.  Despite the lack of gloves I stomped into the pasture, through two gates, into the pen, reached down, grabbed the pile, tossed it into a paper bag, disposed of the bag, walked inside, cleaned my hands, applied one more coat of lipstick, brushed my hair, got in the car.  I went to dinner.  I thought about the goats the entire time.  Upon returning, I changed back into farm clothes and sat in the barn with the babies for a full hour before going to bed.  I slept very well last night.

I hear from some of you sometimes, but I know there's even more of you reading.  For some, this blog may be little more than easy voyeurism, a keyhole perspective into the strange lives some of us lead.  I accept that - I encourage it.  Welcome! For others, these stories are a little like unraveling small mysteries - at least that's how it was for me way back when I started poking around the blogosphere out of morbid curiosity or wanderlust or however you want to frame it.  I read those stories looking for a little courage, searching for someone else who looked just like me, who had figured it all out, who had all of the answers and possibly downloadable instructions for how to get from the desk job to the pasture.  I'd pay for a set of construction plans to build that life - was it out there in someone else's story?

The truth is, actually, no, it's not.  If you're here looking for instructions, I do not have them for you.  I hope you come here because you like the stories or the pictures.  I hope you come here because you're curious or weighing your own options, dipping a toe in or diving.  I don't have any answers but can offer more encouragement then could fill the interwebs and can give one piece of advice with absolute certainty: No matter where you are now or where you aim to be, if you're starting with a chicken or a tomato plant, if you're shooting for what seems attainable or what feels impossible - be brave.  Understand there are no maps for where you're headed, and go ahead anyway.   

*Thank you Cheryl for the video.  And the company.

So God Made a Farmer

Can you watch this without crying?

Me neither:


I like the quiet hush when the sun sets and the crickets come out singing songs about summer.  I like a big porch with a chair where the cat curls and paws at passing dog tails, "pat pat pat" as they lope by towards the smell of adventure that lives down in the grass and bushes.  I prefer the scent of dusty hay where the animals sleep, the musk of livestock fur that's weathered rain and ice and deep, searing heat.  I prefer the colors green and blue and brown and yellow, the four basic points on the seasonal compass.  I barter in food and grain.  I'll trade each and every Saturday night downtown for 10 minutes at the round bale where the black birds perch to consider their prospects.  I find some mild weather and iced tea, a hot bath and bourbon will heal most of what ails.  I see your commercials to whiten my teeth, to smooth my skin, to coif my hair, to smell artificial and lovely, to make a more perfect version of myself, but I clean up with soap and water, rinse hands in the trough, paint my nails with broken egg yolk, wash my face with lye and milk.  A ponytail and stained jeans.  Deodorant and chapstick. Worn out boots and barn floors.  The sunrays that filter down just where the dust particles float suspended, then swirl and fall gracefully onto the back of a slumbering goat, curled up beside me - that is what can't be bought or bottled.  Untwining hay and lifting new baby animals with these two hands I've carried around so long, finally working after all these years; that confidence isn't lurking in a beautiful dress and makeup.  I look better in this skin.         

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Ask me in a week

I've stopped and started this sentence at least five times for more than a week.  Do I relay this story with humor?  Do I give facts and advice?  Do I keep out the gory bits?  No matter how I spin this one - it weighs heavy. 

Jolene never really did, actually, go into labor.  The last time I wrote I was in a deep layer of worry that made me belligerent and fidgety to those around me.  I had read too much, maybe, about worst case scenarios - was positive she'd be one - and was anxious to get on with it already.  From the time I last wrote until the following Tuesday - a span of five days - Jolene's behavior declined steadily.  It started with a faint moaning she let out with every breath.  Then a slow walking that deteriorated to limping.  I attributed the pathetic behavior to being uncomfortable carrying triplets (or, lord help us, quads?!) and didn't allow myself to worry it was something more serious since she never lost her appetite and was perfectly alert for the duration.  Her vitals were normal but her physical appearance was just total crap.  I was convinced she'd started labor at least three times a day for five days.  On Sunday the babies moved so vigorously I expected a tiny hoof to punch straight through her belly and start tap dancing on the ground at any moment.  She rolled her eyes and wheezed, looked back towards her belly and moaned.  Shifted her weight.  Struggled to stand, fell in a heap instead.  I ruled out toxemia because she still walked, wasn't lethargic and had that sneaky appetite that kept fooling me into the belief that all was probably ok.  I chalked my worry up to my historically hysterical personality and waited.  I waited until Tuesday morning.

After showering and getting ready for a day in the office, I went outside to check the animals and found Jolene was nearly paralyzed in her hind legs.  They were useless as jello and dragged behind her in a way that caused my already nervous stomach to quiver with a sick, cold feeling.  Something was horribly awry and, although she still was hungry and alert, I knew the situation had gone out of my hands sometime in the night.  I ran inside and used Google to find the number of the clinic I always planned to call for an emergency.  Just as I started a conversation with a vet, the phone turned off.  I called back.  It turned off again two sentences into the call.  It never turned on again.  I frantically emailed my mother.  Please, I wrote, would you call the vet, would you tell them what's happening, would you make them fix her??  I banged my fingers down into the keys as I typed, so angry at this turn of events and the broken phone and all of my poorly formed decisions that led to this moment standing in the kitchen, begging for help, only half ready for a day in the office that suddenly seemed so small and stupid in comparison to the little goat who lay moaning and wheezing in the pasture.  I told my boss I wasn't coming in, that my goat was sick.  I knew how that explanation would be received, and I boldly did not give a damn.  Others might polish their degrees, hone their job titles at shmoozy conferences, shake hands with certain folks just to say they did.  Well, I've got my goats.  It takes an emergency for some truths to crystallize.  In that moment, sitting in a heap on the kitchen floor, broken phone thrown at the wall, laptop perched in my lap, dirty kleenex strewn at my feet, it was tangibly evident what matters most to me.    

The vet arrived with her assistant and the three of us tromped out to the pasture where Jolene cried softly and watched us warily.  The poor girl was poked and prodded, tested for paralysis.  She was propped up - fell over.  After a five minute exam, the vet stood back and peeled off her latex gloves, wiped her brow.  "You've got two choices," she said carefully, "we give her a few energy boosters and wait.  She won't deliver without major assistance and, no offense, but I don't think you can do it alone.  Or we take her in right now and get these babies out.  Honestly - I doubt she'll survive this without a c-section."


Without thinking - I laughed.  Because, honestly, a goat c-section sounds ridiculous.  Also, considering the breadth and depth of reading I'd done on the subject of goat birth, surgery was never an option.  But as it turns out, this is a fairly routine and relatively affordable procedure that can be done with minimal risk.  I asked approximately seven questions pertaining to after care, survival rates, nursing ability.  Then I told the vet to take her and do the surgery today.  We agreed it was best.  After running inside to grab an old blanket, we hoisted her into a sling and carried her out of the pasture slowly, stopping to rest three times before we lifted her into the truck.  Jolene, the Nubian princess, perched regally throughout the ordeal, one slender leg dangled from the front of the blanket, her delicate face turning to survey the situation.  A caprine Cleopatra tolerating her fate.  Willy trotted backwards in front of us, crying out in a shrill voice I've never heard before.  He licked her face before we pushed him away from the gate.  I swallowed a sob.  It was all perfectly dramatic and textbook worst case scenario.  The truck drove away just as my mother drove up.  I cried for 15 minutes.  Then we waited.

The vet called at 5pm to announce that Jolene had lived.  One of her babies had not.  The other two little boys were doing fine.  We could bring them all home the next day.  She noted that the problem was likely due to a most unusual development of the babies.  All triplets apparently develop predictably: one baby grows in one side of the uterus and the other two share the other side.  My poor Jolene grew all three in one side causing the uterus to stretch and overcompensate in a way that would have made normal birth impossible and likely caused the terrible pressure and paralysis at the end.  The vet had never seen, heard, or read about this situation.  Of course - the scientific anomaly happened to my animal.  Of course.  There are, obviously, many questions to ask and much research to conduct before we breed her again - if that time ever comes.

Right now, our farm has baby goats again and their voices sound like tiny bells ringing out from the forest.   Despite their small, weak start, they have grown in one week and are showing signs of two distinct personalities with a strong penchant for head butting and log jumping.  It's a completely different situation from the back porch bottle-feeding experience of last spring, and watching them run through the trees after the big goats is absolute, pure joy.  They care very little about me, since I'm not food, and that will make it easier to part with them when that time comes (DON'T WORRY JEREMY - they're not staying).

Well, they're not both staying.  Little Sergio here has already claimed a tiny corner of my heart.

Pearlsnaps is due this week and showing steady signs of kidding, although she hasn't slowed down one bit, a stark contrast to Jolene's rapid decline at the end.  This means, I hope (I hope), things will be more normal for her.  Less worst case.  There's a lot more to say probably about the entire experience, but I'm not ready to get all poetic and introspective about it just yet.  On the day that Jolene finally showed signs of recovery and was able to stand on her own so that the babies could nurse normally - just on that day - I lost my precious little dog LuLu, who has been a constant companion for 14 years.  There's a lot more to say about that, too.  With both Jeremy and my mother now out of the country for over a week, I'm out here alone, eyeing Pearl with suspicion, drinking some wine, pacing the porches, looking at Lu's grave just out the kitchen window, realizing that I am scarred already from this place.  There's not much middle ground in the country, or in loving these things so fiercely, like I do.  But it hasn't scared me yet.  Some people jump from planes to test their guts and gain a little buzz from the reminder that they are, in fact, alive.  I prefer this version of measuring my own piss and vinegar.  I guess I've got more in there then I realized.  I guess I'm still happier now than I've ever been before.

This is not for the faint of heart.  This week I watched a vet chop a placenta in half and toss it on the ground, the other piece still protruding from the goat.  I administered numerous shots, drenched a goat repeatedly, washed babies, washed bottoms, and washed my hands (a lot).  Almost everyone else I know slept peacefully on those cold nights I sat with a goat's head in my lap, counting stars at 3am, praying to whatever listens that this too would pass.  Yesterday I read this quote in the new homesteader magazine, From Scratch: "Be willing to be a beginner every single morning." - Meister Eckhart.  Then I whispered, sign me up for beginning again and again and again. 

Friday, January 18, 2013

Puppy Love

Honestly, really, truly - the most spectacular dog.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Warning Labels

It's almost midnight, and I've checked the goats each hour since 5pm.  Inside is all hand-wringing-nail-biting nervousness, reading the same instructions about goat birth that I first peeked at almost a year ago.  I guess I started looking at the goat birthing facts so early out of sheer, morbid curiosity.  The "ew" factor of it all as enthralling as watching a train wreck.  You can't possibly look away no matter how desperately you'd like to.  That's how I've been feeling about goat birth since the very, itsy, bitsy beginnings of all this.  Always, since the beginning of time (or I guess since age 8, if we're being precise) - I knew I'd have goats tucked back into my life somehow.  I knew there would be homemade cheese and idyllic milk stands.  Quaint as that is, it comes with scary/gory stuff as well.

Can I sit this one out?

The thing about all this I never considered before is that you gotta take all of it.  Farming isn't a pick and choose kind of situation (unless you are independently/exorbitantly wealthy.  Congratulations!!).  With the idyllic comes the horrific.  With the beauty comes the ugly.  All the good with all the bad.  Just as children don't come with instructions, this life isn't accompanied with warning labels (something I am seriously considering to lobby with USDA since farming is drug-like to many of us.)  Shouldn't someone, somewhere, somehow have throttled me along the way - given me the 'ol shoulder shaking and a smack on each cheek - some sort of reality check about what I was getting into?  Oh - NO - you say?!!  It was my CHOICE to get into this situation?  It's no one ELSE'S responsibility???!!!


In between my absolutely freezing visits into the goat pasture, I'm back inside by the fire and skimming through old posts, reviewing the years of torment over getting out here and the determined (although completely uneducated) plans to set up pastures and acquire animals.  In fact, this gem made me laugh out loud alone here in the living room.  I actually mentioned a "babbling brook" or something to that effect at Pure Luck Dairy - absolute proof of my gift for hyperbole.  In my drugged state, induced by the scent of goat barns and chickens that wafted over me at the dairy that day, I developed a fantasy image of a farm there at Pure Luck.  The place is, from any perspective, beautiful.  But there ain't no babbling brook running through the place.  Yet that's how perfectly I saw it.  That's how perfectly I envision things.  And what does it get me, all that hyperbole and envisionment (new, legit word I made up)?  Where?  Here, right here hunched over a computer at midnight, wearing two pairs of pants, two pairs of socks, and three shirts so as to be ready in an instant to dash out into the 28 degree darkness to assist my beloved goat if she kids tonight (this morning now, technically.  Oh Lord - tomorrow will be a rough one).

Shoved deep in my pockets are the remnants of a day's worth of kleenex used to battle cedar allergies as I've tended animals outside between the day job inside.  Exhaustion means I failed to thoroughly scrub the cow dirt from beneath my nails.  I may have neglected to brush my teeth this morning.  I am positive I failed to apply deodorant.  Soon I'll brew a pot of coffee and tonight I will not sleep.  Not with impending goat birth and possible bottle feedings and goat health concerns against the backdrop of a cold, cold morning.  For years this vision included butterflies and green pastures and, apparently, babbling brooks (?).  I didn't factor in all these dirty bits that are 50% of the job.  I didn't consider a lot of things.

Don't worry.  I'm not crying "uncle" against this place and the whole ordeal.  I'm just saying that it'd be nice to take a pass on the hardest parts or send it on down the line to someone better suited, thicker skinned, country boned.  It's in these wee hours when I pace with worry about something farm-related that I understand how long it takes to gain confidence in this profession.  You have to earn it in the trenches before you can wear it proudly on the sleeve.  So out I go again to sit next to a little doe whose fate I - really - cannot know.  Who represents another beginning here.  Who should have come with a warning label: Tough as nails, breakable as glass, and loveable as hell.  Handle with care.

I feel that way about this whole damn place lately.