Farewell, Ambrose

May 21, 2018

I slaughtered my rooster, Ambrose Burnside, yesterday. I was sad to do it. I dislike killing anything. However, he was too aggressive to live on my farm. He had begun attacking me every time I came into the barn. He attacked Flossie the barn cat. He attacked the geese, not just chasing but pursuing them with mad intent. On Saturday morning he chased my old goose Kay out of the barn and up the hill until she went through the fence and in with the sheep for protection. That afternoon he chased a frantic Serena around the sheep stall, tearing out her feathers.

Ambrose had outgrown his teenage scruffiness and was very handsome. I’m sorry these last photos had to be taken on a drizzly weekend in the mud, as he rippled with iridescent green, gold, and copper in the sunshine. However his beauty was beside the point when he was flying at you, wings spread and spurs extended.

I don’t know what went wrong with Ambrose. He came to me as a young adult and perhaps he had a difficult past. Once he was with me I treated him with the same care and deference I’ve treated every rooster, all of whom remained friendly for years.

I plucked and gutted the carcass in the kitchen and we’ll have chicken soup for dinner.

 *   *   *

Meanwhile, of his six babies, the one with the dislocated leg was dead the second day. However the yellow chick without balance cheeped on. It became more steadily upright. It was still clueless and did not seem to be able to follow its mothers instructions or even navigate on its feet. It did not eat or drink, despite my repeatedly dipping its beak. Morning and evening I lifted the hen, expecting to find the chick dead. But no. Cheep! Cheep! It seemed that though this yellow chick had been the first to start pipping its way out of the egg, it might simply be delayed in its maturity. Feeling cheered, I nicknamed it “A Day Late and A Dollar Short” and prayed it would get the hang of eating before it starved to death.

It did. Now I can’t tell “Dollar” from the healthy yellow chick, and all five run around like busy sandpipers. My hope is one will prove to be a rooster and grow up to lead the flock.


A Moist Weekend

May 20, 2018

It is so exciting to be living on the farm in the spring for the first time. I have loved walking the dogs at night and hearing the mating calls of the peepers and bull frogs, the crazy zeep! of a woodcock. During the daylight hours robins and jays squabble over territory; tree swallows swoop around the barn. The grass is green and starting to grow. I even don’t mind this weekend’s gloomy, dripping skies because the land is so full of promise.

The poplars leafed out last week in delicate green. “Popple” is here considered a trash tree, a weed, and I cut down seedlings ruthlessly in the pastures, but I can’t help but be fond of a tree that is the first to sport brave new leaves in the spring and the last one to lose them, golden, in the fall. (Poplars sound more upscale when you call them aspen.) Now the red buds of the maples are unfolding and the first blossoms of the black cherries gleam white in the woods.

Mike stopped by yesterday in his round of errands and  cut back a half dozen trees that fell over the fences in the back field in the big windstorm two weeks ago. I could have cut them all with a handsaw but once you’ve seen the wonders of technology, it’s hard to go back. It took Mike less than ten minutes to saw the trees into manageable chunks.

I’ll stack the logs in the woods and haul the brush to the burn pile. Yesterday I stopped at the fire department and picked up a permit.

But today it is pouring rain and I will focus on indoor chores.

Hooray for the Weekend!

May 19, 2018

The end of the school year is fast approaching. One more week of real classes, another week of partial classes, graduation, several days of meetings, and I am done. I cannot wait!  It is so freeing to think that this summer there is no single overwhelming job (vid. build the garage, or pack and move our household). I am so eager to tackle smaller projects. I have several hundred on my list. I am excited to start.

Before then, however, I have classes to teach, exams to grade, papers to correct, diplomas and end-of-year reports to write, senior pages to put together for all the graduates. The next two weeks will be busy.

It is due to rain all weekend. I am trying to walk on the neighboring ski trails with the dogs for 30-40 minutes a day, both for my heart and to strengthen my bad knee. I hope to go this morning before the rain starts and tomorrow late after it ends. I need to move the sheep both days and muck the barn. I need to weedwhack the driftway so I can repair and get a charge in the fence, to get the cows out on first grass. Also on my list are weeding a couple of the gardens before the goutweed takes over and cutting down a pair of shed doors before the rain starts.

I know — pipe dreams! I won’t even tell you about the other 35 chores I’ve written down hopefully for the weekend. On Saturday mornings, drinking my coffee, anything seems possible.

Explosion of Mice

May 16, 2018

This winter my barn had a mouse population explosion. I was constantly finding mice drowned in water buckets, mice in the grain bins, mice chewing holes into bags in the grain shed, mouse droppings everywhere. The tack room stank of mice. There were even mouse droppings in the cat’s food dish!  I knew something had to be done, but I don’t like killing and I put off dealing with the problem. Naturally, the problem grew.

When the snowbanks finally ebbed, I bought a simple set-up for a bucket mousetrap. This is a “walk the plank” trap which encourages the foraging mouse to creep out on a plank baited with peanut butter. The see-saw plank releases and the mouse falls into a bucket out of which it can’t jump. The directions say to fill the bottom of the bucket with several inches of water, but drowning is a slow and panicky death that I wouldn’t inflict on anything. Instead, I have driven the captured mice a mile down the road and released them in the forest.

Forty-three mice re-homed so far this spring.

Spring Chicks

May 15, 2018

My little white hen hatched out six chicks yesterday.

She had sat on nine eggs. Three eggs turned out to be unfertilized; after three weeks of steady warmth from the hen, they were rotten, exploding when I tossed them on the manure pile.

Two of the chicks were too weak to force themselves out of their eggs, giving up after ten or more hours of steady peeping and pecking. I am constitutionally unable to watch anything die without trying to help, so (though knowing from both my reading and my experience it was hopeless) I peeled off the last bits of shell. Both chicks are damaged. One appears to have a dislocated leg, the other a neurological problem that causes it to have no balance. I expect one or both to be dead this morning. Sigh.

This hen — I am guessing a White Orpington — was one I rescued from the school chicken harvest last fall. Every few years I have traded for a hen or two from the school to bring new blood into my flock. Invariably these hens have raised chicks for me.  I imagine it is because they are older but it always feels like gratitude.

I’m crossing my fingers that of the four healthy chicks at least a couple are hens and not cockerels. I will know by October.


Back in the Saddle Again

May 14, 2018

On Saturday, “get out the mowers” was on my list. Not because I need to mow (though the grass is turning green, it hasn’t really started to grow yet) but because I needed a lawn tractor to move the sheep shelters. Of the three lawn tractors, not a single one would start. Unfortunately, my jumper cables wouldn’t stretch far enough into the storage unit to reach them. Worse still, the heavy 16 hp Cub Cadet with the brush hog blocked rolling any of the mowers out, and it, too, was dead.

I left a message on Mike’s phone. “Paging Dr. Mike!”

Mike came out yesterday before lunch with a jumper box and one after another, got all the mowers roaring.

The old bladeless Craftsman (the “I-Haul”) was resting on its rim, the tire so weather-rotted that it had a four-inch gash. I use the I-Haul with a cart for picking up stones. With all the earth-moving done last year, I’m going to be rock-picking all summer. Mike took the tire away to replace it.

I was so cheered. The sun was shining, tree swallows were swooping, a bluebird was investigating a nest box… I stood at the top of the property and looked down. [Doubleclick on photo.] There is the garage apartment, the (unfinished) house, the stone retaining walls, the garden shed, the barn, even way off in the distance the sauna, outhouse, and cabin.

There is a huge amount of work ahead to be done. There are waiting chores in every direction. Nevertheless, looking down at my little kingdom I felt a surge of pure happiness.

A Long Winter

May 13, 2018

Greetings and salutations! I apologize for the extended silence but a wave of unrelated events knocked me off my feet in February and it’s taken me a while to find my energy again. This was a long winter.

We had plenty of snow. I was happy for the skiers in the family and for our ski town that depends on tourism. I didn’t even mind dealing with it at the barn, constantly shoveling out paths, doorways, and gates. After toughing out one or two scary drought years I try to remain grateful and thank God for every bit of precipitation.

However, six months of dark skies certainly took an emotional toll. It was grey and gloomy nearly every day.

Except when it was gloomier.

When the sun finally came out on Sunday, April 21, locals professed shock — “what could it be?” — and emerged from their homes blinking and nearly giddy with joy.

The next day it was grey once more, with high winds and rain. Everything was ice, slush, and mud.

I remembered Allen telling me years ago, “We need some rain and wind to dry things out.” Sure enough, the pounding rain melted the snow and thawed the surface soil. A week of dark, rainy days wiped the landscape clean for the first time since October.

When morning dawned on April 28 the sun finally tried to peek out again.

The very next day (two weeks ago) we got a fresh foot of snow. Last weekend we had a rain and wind storm with tornado warnings. Really.

There was a lot of stress this winter. Job anxieties, financial anxieties, the ever-clamoring to-do list. In the midst of it all, my bad knee flared up until I was so crippled I could hardly climb the stairs to our bedroom or walk to the barn. The pain woke me up when I turned over in my sleep. My bad elbow throbbed. I developed a heart problem, finally diagnosed as intermittent atrial fibrillation. (I am fine, but the episodes were scary.) I felt ten million years old, like a bucket of rusty and broken parts.

About five years ago, an older friend said to me, “Don’t you find your energy slowing down?” I’d shaken my head in surprise: “No, why?” She smiled. “You will.” This winter my energy ran out.

In early February I was sleeping in my clothes on the living room floor to do barn checks. In short succession, my ewes Geranium and Cranberry both gave birth to triplets. After checking at 11 PM I got back to the barn at 2 AM and missed Geranium’s birthing by five minutes; her final triplet smothered and died when she was too tired to rip open the amniotic sac. Two days later I missed Cranberry’s birthing by fifteen minutes. She laid down on her first two healthy lambs, accidentally killing them, to deliver the third. Carrying three dead, perfect lambs out of the barn took the heart out of me.

The next morning I found Cranberry’s final triplet stretched out flat. He was too weak to suck. His head lolled and when I gave him a bottle the milk dribbled out of his mouth. I was numb. That day a colleague at work mentioned that I looked tired. I explained about the lamb.

“If anyone can save a sick lamb, you can,” Dave said.

Though my brain felt dull and stupid, his confidence cheered me. I named the lamb “Dave” and force-fed him, stroking his throat to stimulate him to swallow, every few hours for days. Finally the morning came when he bounced away from my reaching hand.

Yesterday the blessed sun was out. The brown dead winter fields are starting to flush green. Limping slowly, I got my net fences out of storage and set them up. I covered one of the shelters and ordered more tarps. I filled the water trough, and turned out the sheep on the new grass. Dave the ram lamb galloped out with the flock, fat and happy.

And I am back.