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.   

Wednesday, January 16, 2013


It's 45 degrees and sun's finally broken out from behind the damp blanket of clouds that draped over central Texas for days.  I'm not cut out for this weather.  The couch is piled with papers and documents that urgently need to become a product for work, but my eyes are caught by the hens scratching at bugs near the back door and the pile of goats and great pyrenees snoozing under a stand of elm in the creek bed.  From the kitchen window I see the new round bale set out a day ago.  Six donkey bottoms face me and two bucklings and one calf sleep together inside the hay ring on top of a bundle of hay.  Maddie's head disappears into the bale, her body a shock of blonde against the post oaks leaning behind her.  It's been months since Jeremy scattered grass seed but because of the week of rain, the ground's finally covered in shoots of green.  The pasture spreads with a faint mist of grass, the promise of spring already lurking.

Inside, the remnants of a fire pop quietly in the wood stove, and I'm eating homemade granola topped with yogurt from Maddie's milk.  I stirred our wild honey into the tea pot, and the Lumineers hum on the stereo.  I lit candles just to melt them down and use their glass containers to plant the succulents picked up this weekend.  It's beautiful outside, and I'm a caged animal pacing the house looking out windows onto this sunny winter day.  I'd rather be in the barn, potting the plants, sitting in the hay bale with Rodeo and the bucklings.

And I can't stop worrying about those goat babies.  Jolene appears ready to pop at any moment.  It could be today; I'll be shocked if we don't have babies here before the weekend.  I woke up at 2:30 a.m. to sit with her in the 28 degree morning. I'm not cut out for this waiting.  Not just for the event itself but knowing there's another big change coming.  As usual.  And in the middle of all this I'm supposed to work?

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Winter Owls

Tonight I'm making another batch of feta with the milk that's collecting in the fridge.  I have maybe five dog-eared cheese making books in my arsenal and have started to decipher the difference between meso and thermophilic cultures (but don't be a smartass and ask me to explain it).  The science of this craft is intimidating to a person who can just barely articulate photosynthesis.  Cultures, pH levels, chemical reactions - they're beyond me.  I declared on January 1 that this year I would slay two cheese-related beasts: 1) by the end of 2013 I'll be able to whip up a batch of creamy feta without consulting a recipe, and 2) I'll make one edible molded cheese like Camembert.  It's not exactly shooting for stars, but it's best to set goals at an achievable height. 

The radio echoes through the kitchen, competing with the noise of a full dishwasher.  Dogs lay in heaps around the island, snoring and dream-running after chickens or squirrels.  Betty barks at the back property line, every other second, the way she does each night when the sun sets until 10pm.  Through all this racket billows a sound that's rich and hollow at once, like one note hummed into a tin can.  I hear it once, then it comes back out rounder, fuller.  It's right at the roof, then in the woods then at the cow pasture.  I quickly silence the radio-demon telling stories about deficits and guns, a flu epidemic, impending disaster and chaos.  I pause the dishwasher that busily scrubs away a day's worth of hurried meals and milk pails.  I grab the glass of wine that's been following me around the house this evening, take it for a walk onto the back porch. 

I hear the thing again before discerning its sturdy shape at the edge of a branch.  Four long, low hoots.  It is answered by another immediately in the distance, then a third calls from someplace over where the cows sleep.  Their song is a voice from another world, where time is imagined.  By piercing the noise inside it made me quiet the space and brought me out to the porch where stars twinkle and trees stand watch.  Every year, just at that time when the calendar turns and we ready ourselves for ambitious starts, and plans, and new worries, the winter owls perch.  Their voices say, "Be still." 

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Fool's Gold

"So, why are you doing this again?  I guess you like trees and space and stuff?"  A friend asked in complete seriousness over lunch, during a cool month in 2008.  I don't remember the details.  We were downtown and both wearing suits, I know that much.  It was smack in the middle of my graduate school education - you know - back when I quit my job in order to become America's Next Top Social Policy Reformer.  Back when I spent more money on heels and tailored suits than animal feed.  Back when the farm was no more than a twinkle in my eye.  She had a smart phone which was still sort of a big deal at that time, and I remember she checked it periodically to make sure she hadn't missed extremely urgent emails (I am not judging.  I probably checked my email three times while writing this sentence).  We sat in a busy restaurant near the state capitol where the air feels electric and urban and exciting - if you're into that stuff.  I used to be into that stuff.

She'd asked a good question - a great question.  For months now I had practiced a response that sounded both purposeful and thoughtful, that would elicit awe and respect instead of a wrinkled nose and confusion.  I practiced a confident hands-on-hips retort to the expected "farmer" judgments that would inevitably be made.  At that time, I was fully immersed in a policy program surrounded by students eager to work in Washington D.C. and change the world through powerful appointments in foreign and domestic government or foundations, or the sort of organizations that do things like, you know, change the world.  And in the midst of all that, I decided to be a farmer.  It was a confusing moment in my chronology.  This lovely friend certainly wasn't the first to ask, but she was the first with whom I was completely honest, mostly because I was tired of giving The Speech that probably included an explanation about my passion for environmental and agricultural policy (false) and how the land and subsequent farm would become some sort of semi-urban space open to disadvantaged youth so they could learn about self-sufficiency (also false).  That's not why I wanted this life, but at that time, it was the only explanation that made sense based on all the other decisions I'd made up to that point.  The honest answer was out of sequence, old fashioned, jarring.  But I was tired of The Speech followed by jokes about cowboy boots and cow shit.  So I stopped lying, and I told her exactly why I had already lost so many nights sleep with the anticipation of what might be coming.  Regardless of how unsophisticated, dull, and unimportant it sounded to the professional sensibilities of my peers.

"I'mdoingthisbecauseIwanttokeepgoatsandcowsandhavemyownmilkandmakecheeseandkeepahuge gardenandliveoffmyanimalsandsitonmyporchtowatchthesunriseandset."  I said it so quickly everything jumbled together.  I doubt she caught more than "cheese" and "porch."  She laughed, "Seriously?"  "Seriously," I responded, face stoic, readying myself for critique and willing my defenses not to crack a joke.  "Well," she put her phone down and was suddenly at full attention, "I think that's incredibly exciting.  Good for you, girl."

I stopped giving The Speech after that conversation and began answering such questions with a new Keep it Simple Stupid approach to the entire situation: "Because I want to farm."  It would take much time and actual farming to eventually understand the real answer to "Why this life" question we would continually (and still) receive.  I don't think about that question or that answer very much anymore.  It's surprising now to remember how my answer used to consume me.  It was necessary to craft an explanation that was tangible and reasonable.  It was important to me that I appeared as a person who makes meaningful choices.  Although I'd never talked to anyone about this dream pushed into the deepest crevices of my imagination, this was no ephemeral fantasy.  But no one knew that.

Since we moved here, all of that has changed.  Since I brought home four baby goats that required round the clock bottle feeding, all of that has changed.  Since we broke ground on our first jumbo-garden that was tilled with the tractor, all of that has changed.  The doing somehow legitimized the wanting - for me.  I am thinking about this now, today, because there has been so much doing these past months that it occurs to me how suddenly explanations are no longer necessary.  When you are in the midst of your life, no one asks why but instead how.  I am not seen any longer as someone yearning or striving or scribbling because I no longer see myself in that regard.  I wake up and battle the bucklings, feed the inside then the outside dogs, separate cattle, count chickens.  A weekend date night is a late trip to Lowe's in the old farm truck that gets burdened with barn-building material before the luxury of dinner at Taco Cabana.  That's high rolling, for us.

Today I remember that lunch with my friend, not so many years ago.  Back then, I measured success conventionally against a professional and financial yardstick.  I was in the thick of a textbook "dream job" for someone with my background and supposed interests.  Then I drowned in boredom and rose to the surface - here.  To this place of modesty and riches.  Relatively speaking, I've accomplished a lot that looks pretty on paper.  Today, however, I managed to fill a stainless pail with sweet, thick milk from a cow whose name I know, whose face I scratch each morning, who comes when called.  I managed to complete a goat barn started months ago that is now ready and waiting for the baby goats that will be here any moment birthed from the babies I brought home and bottle-fed myself for months.  My legs are permanently bruised at the level where the bucklings' heads reach and bruised from the gates and branches that hit them.  My arms are strong and my hands literally ache.  Out here I see the sun rise and set rather than just knowing it happened.

When the cow seemed to dry up, Kimberly advised to up the ante with feed and general care.  And it worked - doesn't always work that way in general life - but the rules are so simple here. Out here you get back what you put in.  It's a lesson that took 33 years to learn.  Fresh milk from my own cow is liquid gold, its value directly related to the labor involved, to the expense of feed, to the level of care and patience required.  Those products we find so readily available and packaged neatly at $3 per gallon are shamefully cheap.  The cost of food we buy at big box stores skews expectations of price.  Real food, good food, clean food - it ain't cheap.  It shouldn't be.  Behind that carefully wrapped cheese from the farmer's market is a man or woman, an expanse of land, some buildings scrapped together of metal and wood, is sickness and health, is drought and flood, is a herd of animals tended, nursed, and loved.

I say now, with hands on my hips, "I farm."  I do this because I love the animals and I love the view.  I don't aspire to fight big battles anymore or save the world.  I want to fight the good fight of turning animals and dirt into food.  I can count each dollar that went into a cup of fresh milk, can measure the physical pain it caused, the labor it required, the patience it demands.  Nothing is more gratifying then the jar of liquid gold in my fridge, maybe fool's gold since I can buy it cheap at the gas station down the road.  It's the most precious stuff I own.   

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Just Dance

I think it's been over two months since I last wrote a note down here.  Or maybe it was two weeks ago?  Who knows.  This time of year always scrambles the days together between Thanksgiving, Mom's birthday, my birthday, Hannukah, Christmas, and the finale of New Year's Eve.  This year went out with more of a quiet fizzle then a bang.  Jer's been laid up since his return from a hog hunt out in the hill country.  He came home pekid and puny like a translucent version of himself, and it's been quiet around here ever since.  Jeremy, sir if you're reading this, I didn't realize how often you whistle and hum.  It's still as the winter inside our house right now.

Although we were gifted lots of lovelies this season, the best present was - hands down - the 10 days straight of vacation we both enjoyed since December 20 (does anyone else think back fondly of their first day of vacation with a tear in the eye and the sound of tiny violins playing?).  10 glorious days spent lavishly doing absolutely nothing except eating Christmas cookies or thinking about eating Christmas cookies, and waking up late (7:30!  AM!) in order to leisurely eat Christmas cookies.  Jer's hunting trip and subsequent illness allowed me lots of free time here to take long walks with the goats out in the big pasture where the cows and donkeys and bucklings live in (almost) complete harmony.  The two girls, Willy Boots, and all of the dogs spill through the pasture fence, greeted by two bucklings who spend their time alternately crying sadly towards the goat pasture and head butting violently.  For them, guests are always welcome.  As soon as we all make it in, the littlest buckling - Atlas - generally starts springing off all four hooves at once.  First he springs to the round bale to demonstrate the fine art of Hay Bale Jumping - a sport worth petitioning the Olympic committee for future inclusion.  Based on the height of the bale, he usually manages to make it halfway up the side of the thing without a running start but just by springing off the ground from a complete standstill - flinging his body ferociously into the side of the 1500 pound ball of grass, his white, Nubian ears flying freely above his head, hooves pointed delicately downward, his little tail an exclamation point  off his back-end.  There's a lot of joy out there in the barnyard.  Once we make it past the hay-jumping, the little herd of goats and dogs trot down trails in the woods or make their own.  I find a rock, sit on a log, pick up a few Indian tools, pat the heads that pass along by, lift up branches, and always wander down to the back fence overlooking the ranch behind us that's had a faded For Sale sign up for so long.  The goats usually run up to the fence too, stick their heads through the barbed wire momentarily before running off in search of a delicious cedar tree.  It's such pretty, feral land.
The bucklings enjoy the round bale bed.

Walking along with the goats - I don't take this stuff for granted - not the luxury of the free time or the solitude we still have in these last few weeks (days? hours?) before the kids are born.  The girls are distended and uncomfortable, although still able to jump creeks like gazelles, those bellies swinging heavily below them.  It makes me wince to watch.  I'm losing sleep about what's coming but, well, it's coming and there's no stopping it now.  There are empty pages here for those stories.

Vacation highlights all of our contradictions.  In just one week I stocked up on alfalfa, shopped in downtown Austin at such intensely "cool" stores that only my sister would know about them, trimmed hooves, hosted a wine and cheese for those women in my life who have been my sisters since the pre-pre-teen years, milked a cow, and spent the last few minutes of 2012 under a disco ball and strobe light dancing to Milkshake in a friend's backyard.  Such a strange, strange assortment of pieces to this life.  2012, you started with a sucker punch, but you ended with a "I don't give a sh*t who's watching" dance under glowing, spinning lights (I win).  This year beat us down: a potential lawsuit, a new broken house, flooding.  And this year propped us up: a herd of baby goats, a long front porch, a million dollar view - a lot of empty pages.

It's an introspective time.  A time to bag up the self-loathing and make shiny resolution lists that serve as a beacon through these dreary months of winter.  I've thought a lot about my own list, added all the usual suspects like eat better, exercise more, worry less.  Blad-y blah.  Then I scratched it all out 'til only two lines remained.  Just two, maybe they're all we need?

More dancing.
More dreaming.

And the Oscar Wilde quote I found on the Fabulous Beekman Boys site where the boys did some of their own end-of-year soul searching: "If you are not too long, I'll wait for you all my life."

Think about it.  Cheers to you and whatever's worth waiting for.  Happy New Year!