Taking care of chores

April 30, 2010

My friend couldn’t work for two days due to the snowstorm. But I kept busy.

My last lamb was born, making 13 lambs total, and 12 surviving. (One of these days I’ll post about that poor lost lamb, way back in mid-February. His surviving twin is practically as big as a yearling already. Their mother, Azalea, has the most bounteous sheep udder on the place. I often see Mary’s lambs cleverly dropping to their knees behind Azalea to sneak a snack when Azalea is distracted.)

I tagged the last little ewe lamb, the result of Bean’s teenage pregnancy, and banded her tail. The lamb was born knuckling over on one fetlock. This is usually caused by crowding in the uterus, and sure enough, after 24 hours the lamb is standing straight on her feet. Hooray!

I burned the new calf Rocky’s emerging horn buds with caustic paste. It is basically industrial strength wart remover. This makes him very uncomfortable for a couple of hours, and he has to wear a helmet of duct tape to protect himself and his mother, Katika, from any drips or smears.

I hate these unhappy chores. It is against my nature to cause animals any discomfort. However, the discomfort is fleeting and the results are important — no horns to gore me with as a grown bull, no long woolly tail to become sticky with dung and eventually be eaten out by maggots.

Still, I once said to my visiting big brother, trying to pat my steer calf Spanky, who danced away:

“Oh, he’s a little shy.”

And my brother snorted. “A little SHY? So would I be if you cut off my testicles and burned off my horns!”

By the end of the day, however, both Rocky and little lamb #12 were curled up next to their mothers, looking unconcerned.

Walloped by snow

April 28, 2010

Half a dozen times this winter, weather men have forecast blizzards and the big storms have passed us by. So no one was holding his breath over the latest prediction. After all, it’s April 28!

Naturally, this time we got a foot overnight and it’s still snowing.

At least two members of the family are very happy. At 6 AM DH was hauling out his gear for a ski before work. And above is Lucy at 6:45, skiing to barn chores, carrying her school books, with her barn boots tied to her backpack. (At our school all students have barn chores before breakfast and supper, usually in a rotation of two weeks on, four weeks off. Lucy has signed up for barn chores almost every week of the school year.)

Down at the farm, even my bullheaded friend can’t pull stumps that he can’t see, so I will have a quiet day at home.

Speaking of bulls, I banded Rocky, the new bull calf, at morning chores today. Since I am removing his testicles, making him a steer, this is called “steering” a calf. The expression bothered me a lot years ago, as did “beef” as a verb. (“You gonna beef that cow?”) I don’t like referring to any living creature as a product. (Similarly I don’t name pigs Ham, Bacon, or Pork Chop.) However, in this neck of the woods only a persnickety teacher-type would say “castrate.”

Besides, it is my suspicion that most of these euphemisms evolved to spare male embarrassment. In my experience, quite often the same big, burly farmers who swear up and down a mountain will be completely flummoxed by a female using the word “testicle.”

With luck, this afternoon I will have time to post about Katika’s calving. In the meantime there is a wood thrush sitting disconsolately on my back porch out of the snow, no doubt hoping that insects or fruit will magically appear.


April 27, 2010

Eight hours in a spring snowstorm. Words are hardly necessary.

Starting the clean-up

April 27, 2010

My old friend came yesterday to start cleaning up after the logging. It was great to see him and his wide quiet smile, as always.

Some things were unchanged. I said, in reference to one of my ideas, “Well, you know I’m a little crazy,” and he teased automatically, “A little?”

I drove him up the hill to the machine.

I fetched his coffee and his lunch and he said, “Good girl.”

I gave him my arm to steady him walking across the uneven ground.

But I worried. He seemed more tired, more frail, more easily out of breath. When I returned after straining the milk, he told me that he’d had to climb down from the machine — and had stumbled and fallen straight over backwards. Luckily he had just dug up that section of ground to remove the rocks so he had a soft landing.

The stumping work is slow and the area is very large. Several times when I drove out to check on him he told me that he dared not look up while working because he got too discouraged. He was not complaining. He never complains. He was simply stating a fact.

He insists that his health is fine. (Apart from his history of two quadruple-bypass heart operations, stents for cardiovascular disease, glaucoma, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol, that is.) However several times yesterday I could feel tears of worry prickling.  The line from Goodbye, Mr. Chips went through my mind: “Nothing really wrong with him — only anno domini, but that’s the most fatal complaint of all, in the end.”

He has become very dear to me over the six years he’s worked clearing the farm. He has always reminded me at times of my father. But now he is starting to remind me of my mother in her last years: her fragility and brave determination despite her tiredness.

Snowflakes are falling this morning and I find myself almost welcoming the storm due today and tomorrow, so he can have some rest.

No time!

April 26, 2010

I’m sorry I haven’t posted about Katika’s scary illness. I will as soon as I can. But the weekend was so pretty that I spent much of it working outside, far from a computer. It was great to have my hands in the dirt again and the sun on my back, and know that deeply satisfying feeling of physical tiredness that comes from grunt labor and not merely from anxiety or lack of sleep.

This morning I am up early to cook dinner and clean the house before the kids wake. My old friend is coming today to help me on the farm for the week. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to have him back again, so this is a very happy thing. There is no one who knows the property better, or has more skill on big machines — or makes more fun of me. We always have a cheerful, laughing time. The plan is that he will stump and clean up the back ten acres after last fall’s logging so that I can get them in grass as soon as possible.

However, naturally, once I set everything up the sunny forecast darkened. Yesterday I had been worried by the new predictions of rain. But this morning I rose to hear the computer chirping. When I clicked on the Weatherbug alert, I found a Winter Storm Advisory — we may get 6-12″ of snow tomorrow. This can’t be happening!

I hope I’m a good enough customer at the rental place that they won’t charge me to have the excavator sit buried in a snowbank. And I pray that anything we get melts quickly and does not make the land too wet to work.

On the good news front, DH arrives home tonight. I will be glad to have him back safe before the storm. Moreover, Katika is better and by tomorrow morning the refrigerator will be stocked with gallons of milk and his favorite heavy cream.

On to cooking spaghetti casserole and crossing off the rest of my list!

They Died With Their Hats On

April 23, 2010

I have been too rushed to post and now I am too tired. I have been up most of the past two nights, checking Katika. She finally calved yesterday morning but then became very ill with a metabolic disorder called milk fever. Left untended, this would have killed her. She also tore open her udder. I wrote all about it for my cow friends, who walked me through treating her, but I’m too sleepy to put it up here now.


His name is Rocky. I’ll write all about him over the weekend. But now I must get some sleep.

I must say, though, that if you have to be up and down all night, pulling your coveralls on over your pajamas, stuffing your long hair under a baseball hat, and driving down to the farm, it is helpful to have to do it when your DH is away. Instead of stumbling around cautiously in the dark, you just snap on the light. And when you return and kick out of your barn clothes, you can slide under the covers and read for a few minutes as the adrenalin fades.

The only problem is that I’ve been so exhausted that I’ve faded even faster than the adrenalin. Twice over the past two days I’ve waked up to find myself with a book on my chest and my baseball hat still on my head.

Lucy gets braces

April 21, 2010

Lu and I spent the day in Vermont yesterday and she was fitted with braces. Braces these days are a very different animal from that which I experienced forty years ago, or even that Jon experienced ten years ago.

Forty years ago the bands went all the way around each tooth. Now, the hardware is glued to the teeth and only one molar in the back of each quadrant gets a band.

Ten years ago, Jon had no choice but traditional silver braces. Now braces and wires come in a kaleidoscope of possibilities, and kids enjoy changing the colors at every appointment. Lucy’s choice was to start with shamrock green and aqua blue, on alternating teeth! “I figure I might as well have a little fun with it.”

As with glasses last year, Lucy had almost been looking forward to braces, but once they were on she changed her mind. However, she tends to be philosophical. She is happy she will have her braces off by the time she starts high school. This inspired a serious discussion of where she wants to go to high school (there are three local options). Lucy is a long-range planner.

She is so grave and responsible and yet lighthearted underneath. It’s definitely a hassle having to drive so far for the orthodontist; it eats up an entire day and we’ll be doing it every six weeks for two years. However I love spending time with my girl.

In the waiting room we watched a toddler in a lilac pencil-striped cotton dress and matching leggings climb on her mother’s lap. I felt a wave of nostalgia. It seems like only yesterday. My baby is growing up.

Katika is bagging up!

April 20, 2010

Here she is yesterday. Sorry for the rather pathetic photo. Katika’s a lovely cow but she’s still shedding mightily and it’s been nothing but snow and mud here for the past few days.

Moreover, my ram, Ioan, has decided to “turn,” and was stalking me in the paddock, trying to charge and knock me down, so I had to have one hand free to wave a stout stick threateningly in his face. (A good bash, straight across the nose, is the only thing that gives him pause.) Here he is, cleverly blocking the camera view.

Still, you can see that her udder is filling up. I always remember the line from Robert Russell Wicks (quoted by his daughter in A Joyful Noise, her hilarious memoir of an idyllic 1920s childhood on Cape Cod): “The backside of a cow has nothing to recommend it.”

However Reverend Wicks was not a milkmaid. I spend lots of time staring at Katika’s backside these days, trying to assess how imminent is the birth of her calf. Is her vulva more swollen? Are her pin bones looser? Katika is very tolerant of these attentions and actually leans back hoping I’ll scratch the itchy spots on her hips that she can’t reach.

I don’t want Katika to go into labor in a paddock with the horses. I don’t believe they would hurt her or the calf, but it’s a risk. Of course it would be nicest if she delivered her calf on clean dry hay in her cozy box stall, but those odds are only 50:50. So I’m trying to repair the fencing in the upper pasture that was pulled down by crashing trees in winter storms, and am hoping the sod will dry out as quickly as possible so it won’t be carved to bits by hooves.

Nothing is green yet. Maybe in two weeks.

DH was out last night. He will be home tonight for dinner, but tomorrow leaves for a week. He has always traveled a lot but in the past year his schedule has ramped up to a new speed. I’m trying to keep my nose to the grindstone so I don’t have time to feel too lonesome.

A Scrap of Land and a Snip of Sky

April 19, 2010

Today would have been Dad’s 94th birthday.

My mother and father built their house in 1954. Even leaving the upstairs unfinished, the building process cleaned them out. In early 1955 money was terribly tight.

To have something to wrap for my father’s 39th birthday, Mom copied out an unsigned poem she found as a column filler in the Saturday Evening Post, illustrated it, and put it in an inexpensive wooden frame. (So you know that I come by my pack-rat tendencies honestly, in 2003 Mom came across the 2″x3″ magazine scrap and showed it to me.)

The size and frame made scanning difficult. You can double-click to enlarge, but even then you may be challenged by my mother’s distinctive spiky handwriting. (When I was eleven Mom wrote to me at summer camp, saying, “It’s so exciting. We have a new —” and then came an impenetrable pricker bush. I puzzled over that letter forever. A new airedale terrier? A new chimpanzee? I longed to have a chimpanzee. When I got home I discovered we had a new AIR CONDITIONER in the laundry room, the first and only air conditioning the family had for about thirty years. Very exciting, indeed, but not really what I dreamed of.)

Here is the poem:

When I get money enough, I’ll buy
A scrap of land and a snip of sky
With maybe a brook to set it off
And serve a bird for a drinking trough
And a tree to shelter a family house
Where I’ll live, calm as a country mouse.

I’ll be there, if you care to look,
Slumbering by the sleepy brook,
Or marrying bulbs to a bit of earth
Or reckoning up a rainbow’s worth,
Or strolling the boundary, soft and slow,
Listening to my whiskers grow.



When I was small this poem hung in our basement playroom. I remember standing in the hall, reading it on the wall, and thinking that it was a masterpiece.  For me it captured not just my parents (our house had a brook; they were always marrying bulbs to bits of earth) but practically everything that was exciting about growing up.  Having land and a family house was always my dream.

Eventually the poem made its way to Mom’s attic and eventually, thence, to me. It hangs in our mudroom now. I’ve got my scrap of land and snip of sky. I’ve got my family. The house, I’m working on. And someday…

I’ll be there, if you care to look,
Sorting lambs with a shepherd’s crook,
Or milking a cow into a pail
Or threshing grain with a home-made flail,
Or strolling the fields, rocky and sour,
Crossing off chores that fill the hour.

Happy birthday, Dad. Thinking of you with love.

Blech weather!

April 18, 2010

It continued to snow and rain all weekend. Yesterday I left the sheep in, worrying about the lambs and hypothermia. Today the whole flock was so obviously stir-crazy I turned them all out. I now have many dark and muddy sheep, to go with my muddy cow and bull calf and muddy horses. However, everyone looked healthy under the goop at evening chores. Still, they were happy to come into the barn out of the weather and bed down on dry pine shavings for the night.

Charlie, the bull calf, already knows his new stall and turns into it like a champion. Success!

Friday night I had a funny telephone call. I answered the ring to hear a crackly cell phone connection and the boisterous noise of what sounded like a bar crowd.

“Hello, sexy?”

“What?” I repeated stupidly.

“Hello, sexy?” roared the voice.

“Larry?” I said, finally, starting to smile.

Larry is short and laughing and Irish. We have known him since he was 18 years old (he is now 40), when he first emigrated from Ireland. He is former co-worker, and a good friend of ours who is much younger and used to like to pretend to students (who tend to be mystified by most adult relations) that he was my boyfriend.  The fact that I was always scandalized and scolding made the whole joke more fun for him.

“Well, I hope you don’t have too many people who call you that!” Larry said virtuously.

Larry now runs a local high-end horse barn. He knows or is somehow connected to everyone in town, high and low. He was calling to tell me that he was doing a job for someone who wanted to get rid of a small shed, and Larry thought it might work for my sheep.

He and I went to look at it today. It is a shed structure about 4×8 by 4′ tall — not perfect for my sheep, but it would be just the thing for piglets. I am planning to get two pigs in June, to use Katika’s excess milk after she calves. This will save me a day of labor cobbling together material from my scrap pile. It only needs a bit of repair to replace some rotted siding. Naturally, Larry also knows someone with a trailer. We’ll haul it with my truck sometime in the next few weeks. I am blessed by kind and thoughtful friends.

Meanwhile the school farmer, Mike, also called. Mike has a bummer lamb and no milk replacer. As a fellow-shepherd he had hoped I could help him. Unfortunately I don’t use milk replacer; I use raw cow’s milk, and Katika is now dried off.

You really notice the difference between processed milk from the grocery store and real, raw milk when a life hangs in the balance. I hope the store milk will keep his lamb alive.

Mike also told me that his beef cow, Roxanne, who was bred by my bull Georgie last fall, is not pregnant. He’s not sure if she never took or if she slipped her calf. I was concerned at the time by how fat she was. She was a three-year-old Hereford and had spent those years as a pasture ornament, eating happily. Fat heifers have a hard time getting pregnant and carrying to term. This will probably mean a ticket to the freezer for Roxanne.

Here she was last September.

Roxanne. Not a flyweight.

Naturally my mind goes to wondering if I could have Roxanne down at my place on a Jenny Craig diet… with a new boyfriend (Charlie in late summer). However I know I can’t rescue everyone.