Small Moment of Joy

December 29, 2010

Every once in a while I am overtaken by a surge of pure contentment. Such was the other night.

It was 4:45 PM, dark and cold, snow was falling, I was struggling to muck a pile of frozen manure out of the barn aisle, haul it outside, and dump it, before racing home to start dinner and get on with my pressing list… when I looked back at the barn and saw the light spilling from the windows and open door. As the snow sifted down I stood there, gazing.

No single photo can show the bright pine shavings bedding the stalls, the clean water in the filled buckets, the horse, cows, and sheep all munching hay, the barn kittens curled up in their cozy fleece nest. But I knew all were there.

And I did it, I thought. I made this happen.

Sometimes the responsibility feels heavy and lonely. But other times, like that night, happiness just grabs me by the throat.

A Busy Christmas

December 27, 2010

The holiday season often seems like an endurance event around here. Too many commitments, not enough time. Adding the pressure of the bank appraisal on Christmas Eve almost put me over the top. Last night I fixed supper and promptly fell asleep in my chair.

After all my frantic scurrying to prepare for it, the appraisal took less than ten minutes. The day was gloomy and 0° F. A taciturn man in a heavy coat and hat walked around the apartment with a clipboard, scribbling notes. He seemed underwhelmed. I told him about the items we were missing, particularly the back-ordered countertops.

“Just formica, right?” he said dismissively.

“Uh — yes.” But it’s very pretty formica!

I told him we had a great view when the weather cooperated. He glanced out the window. The mountains had vanished in clouds.


I mentioned Allen’s beautiful stone walls, currently buried under snow.

“Imported stone?”

“Er, no. Granite boulders.”

His mouth turned down. I sensed the implied sniff. He made notes and said, “I’m on vacation the moment I get in my car. You’ll probably hear something in ten days.”

Then he was gone.

The holiday itself was lovely. We went to the family service at church on Christmas Eve and then to our friends’ annual supper party, a warm gathering of neighbors. Jon came home with us for the night.

Lucy was so excited she woke early on Christmas day, and at 5 AM took this photo of me in my coveralls over my pajamas. I had just realized our 23-lb turkey was too big for my roasting pan, and was preparing to hike through the snow over to school to borrow one that was industrial-sized.

We enjoyed our usual exchange of gifts, mostly used books — though Lucy got her first pair of new cross-country skis since Grandma bought her the toddler version, Jon received a toaster oven as his apartment has only a cooktop, and I got a compost thermometer! Santa also brought our family a new cordless phone. The old one was ten years old and becoming crotchety. We make many jokes about DH and his complete lack of domestic skills but when we realized he couldn’t dial the phone we knew Santa had to step in.

Then while DH took Lucy out to test-drive the new skis and Jon curled up with his new books, I began cooking up a storm.

Our traditional feast was a bit more complicated this year because I wanted to make a second, vegan version of most of the entrées for Jon. I do not believe in veganism but if you’re not going to indulge your beloved child at Christmas, when do you?

By 2 PM, everything was ready just as our guests — our friends Mike, and Tom and Alison and their twin boys, old pals of Jon — came in the door.

DH carved the turkey.

Lucy had set the table and lit the candles. She was also the staff photographer.

We had roast turkey, stuffing, gravy, candied sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, mint peas, boiled onions, and homemade dinner rolls, served with sparkling cider. Jon had vegan versions of all of it — minus the turkey and gravy, of course.

For dessert I had baked two pecan pies and made French Vanilla ice cream. Jon had more of the banana bread I’d baked for breakfast.

I’m not sure what idea I’m trying to get across to Alison in this photo.

For an hour we ate and talked and laughed and re-filled our plates. (There was a moment of unexpected excitement when the candles burned down and the decorative paper collars Lucy had made for the Advent candlesticks — Love, Peace, Joy, Hope — burst into flames.)

After dinner we had a rousing session of Word on the Street, a board game Tom and Alison brought. We played adults vs. kids. The kids won, which might have had something to do with all the men on our team being unable to restrain themselves from providing helpful suggestions to the opposition.

The party finally broke up when I had to leave for evening barn chores. Below, left, is the annual picture of Mike and “Sis.” Mike is small and huggable and fits under my arm.

Jon, right, is also huggable but he does not fit under my arm any more.










However I am here to report that he is just as ticklish as ever!

Merry Christmas to all!


December 24, 2010

Life in the last two weeks has felt like a train rushing down the tracks. Possibly with me tied to them.

Work on the garage apartment project was desultory throughout hunting season and then in December stopped entirely for ten days. During this period O.B. would not answer his phone or return calls. I was beside myself. Had he quit? What was going on? (I realized later he had taken another job.) At the same time the loan department at the bank was suddenly — and completely unexpectedly — pessimistic. My stress level soared. I could not sleep. Had I led my family into financial disaster?

At the end of last week the bank relented. I was also finally able to reach O.B. and let him know the bank appraiser was coming today at 10 AM.

The appraisal is hugely important. It means the difference between O.B. being paid and not being paid. Like the prospect of a hanging, this has concentrated his mind wonderfully.

All this week the apartment has been a hive of activity. Painters, plumber, electrician, cabinet salesman. From the barn I’ve heard saws screaming and nail guns firing as O.B. has attacked the final punch list. For the first time in months he has arrived at 8 AM rather than 10 AM.

Meanwhile I’ve been in constant communication with the bank, cooking for the Fossils, hauling wood, decorating the house, preparing the family’s Christmas, thawing frozen water pipes, driving Lucy to Vermont for an orthodontic appointment, organizing a New Year’s Eve party, shopping for Christmas dinner, wrapping presents, buying cabinet pulls and door knobs, ordering newel posts and garage doors, and trying not to react to mistakes in the apartment project caused by the last-minute rush.

My lists go with me everywhere. Loading and unloading the dishwasher. Folding laundry. Cooking dinner. Checking my watch.

I just have to get through this last big day of work, shake hands with the appraiser, e-mail the bank the final tally of unfinished tasks, bring the animals in early, and then DH, Lucy, and I can head to the five o’clock family service for Christmas Eve.

I’m holding onto the calming image of the congregation singing “Silent Night” by candlelight.

Wheel of the Calendar

December 22, 2010

Yesterday was the Winter Solstice. Yay! Though the worst twelve weeks of winter are still ahead, we are officially over the hump and cruising toward springtime. Every day from here out will get a little longer and a little brighter. Hooray!

DH took this sunset photo from the porch of the cabin last weekend. It shows the moon rising over the shoulder of Pitchoff Mountain. You can see the dark bulk of the barn — where all the animals are snug in their stalls, munching hay — and the Tyvek-papered garage and ell. I squint and try to imagine the whole farmhouse there, finished, with friendly lights burning.

I can almost see the pantry shelves, the wood cookstove in the ell, the red-checked tablecloth, the dogs snoozing on the kitchen floor.

Yesterday on our drive to Burlington Lucy and I started plotting the large perennial garden that someday will be out the (not-yet-existent) back door. I remember gesturing to Allen at a churned-up field of mud and boulders, saying, “And this will all be a garden!” He snorted. “Rock garden, you mean.” But he smiled tolerantly, and pulled all the boulders.

It’s the dreams that keep me going, especially in the cold and dark of winter. Dreams — plus faith that even in the gloom, spring is on its way.

A quick (and blurry!) glimpse

December 21, 2010

Jon came by for a couple of hours yesterday afternoon to help decorate the Christmas tree. Both dogs, the cat, and Lucy jumped all over him, beside themselves with joy.

Of course, Bing Crosby was singing on the stereo. My parents played this same album throughout my childhood — surely my little sister and I were the only small girls happily bellowing “Mele kaliki maka!” in our suburban Connecticut town? — and DH and I have had it, too, since Jon was a baby.

During the years when we had to travel at Christmas, I always packed the cassette along with Jonny’s Fisher-Price tape recorder, so we would never be without. Now I only have to hear der Bingle moan “I-I-I-I-‘m dreeeeeeeeeaming of a whi-i-i-i-i-te Christmas” and I’m instantly connected to decades of family holidays.

What nostalgia! If I close my eyes, maybe Dad is fixing orange juice in the kitchen. Or Jon in breathless excitement is coming to wake me, wearing his footie pajamas.

Beautiful Morning!

December 20, 2010

I have been feeling anxious and low in recent weeks. Insomnia has left me worn out. So yesterday’s sunrise alpenglow on the snowy mountains at barn chores was a lovely trumpet blast of cheer.

Then on to church, early, for caroling. Somehow God finagled it so I found myself boxed between the former choir director and the church secretary, both of whom have gorgeous soprano voices.

I am not a good singer. I am a loud singer. As with most skilled endeavors, my enthusiasm trumps my ability. In my rough contralto I roar away, plugging the melody.

However so steady am I on the melody that talented singers nearby invariably soar off into harmonies. I cannot overstate the joy this gives me. My scalp lifts and tears come to my eyes. I’m constantly breaking off to hiss to these startled but patient people, “That is sooo beautiful!” Yesterday I simply felt wrapped in happiness.

The Christmas pageant was held during the service. Lots of adorable four-, five-, and six-year-olds in angels’ wings and shepherds’ cloaks. The idea was that each child would bring a treasure from home to present to the Christ child, symbolizing the gifts of the Three Kings and the concept that everyone has something to offer.

One after another, little voices quavered, “Baby Jesus, I’m giving you my stuffed bunny,” or “I’m bringing you my favorite necklace.” Each gift was laid carefully in the cradle. Then a tiny girl stepped forward and announced in an enormous voice that rolled to the back of the church, “Baby Jesus, I don’t have a present, but — I can teach you to ski!


The Fossils are Here

December 19, 2010

Four of DH’s climbing friends are up for a long weekend of ice climbing. The oldest among them have been climbing together for more than thirty years. They call themselves the Fossils. They are out every day struggling up frozen waterfalls with ice axes, ropes, and crampons, and at night they sleep at the cabin. My only task is to keep them fed.

Yesterday morning Lucy and I served them home-grown bacon, milk, fresh fruit, and pancakes. Lucy is our family’s expert pancake flipper. In fact I left her cooking while I went out to milk.

Last night Lucy was at a friend’s house so I was manning the pizza production line by myself. (On family pizza nights it is her job to dress each pie.) But it went like a charm. I’d made three pounds of mozzarella on Friday and yesterday I’d kneaded up a big batch of dough and refrigerated it in six pizza-sized portions. All I had to do at supper time was roll out each pie, sauce it, sprinkle the cheeses, and slide it onto the hot pizza stone in the oven. Ten minutes later, voilà. Pizza time, dudes!

For dessert we had homemade Ben and Jerry’s Heath Bar Crunch ice cream, made with our cream, milk, and eggs.

This morning I’m grilling our home-grown sausage and after barn chores I will make a batch of waffles before I leave for church. The boys can reheat them as they straggle in. It is -7F this morning so they will need some fuel in their bellies.

I think I will start a big pot of beef stew for supper, and some crusty bread.

So Long, Ioan

December 18, 2010

I sold my registered Clun Forest ram, Ioan, yesterday. He went for a third of his on-paper “worth” but it was worth it to me to have him out of the barn for the winter. He was a big two-hundred-pound boy, packing away groceries with gusto, and his breeding job was done. He had also become increasingly rammy with me — and it is tiring to always have to keep an eye out for a creature who wants to assault you.

I’d advertised him all fall, with resulting interest but no takers, and was just becoming resigned to trucking him to slaughter (which, with four hours in gas plus processing, would have been a break-even proposition at best) when this buyer appeared. So I let him go below value and was happy to have my problem so easily solved.

Ioan will be a second ram in a flock of seventy-five Katahdin ewes. He will be out on range, four hours south, in a much milder climate. For him this is a very happy ending.

Ioan was the first ram I ever purchased, and I learned a lot with him.

First, I learned about meningeal worm. I recorded Ioan’s bout with this devastating problem here. Meningeal worm is a parasite carried by deer and attacks the brain, causing paralysis and eventually death. My vets had not seen it and it was only due to my helpful internet sheep group at the North American Clun Forest Association that I was able to diagnosis it properly and treat it. Sadly, the delay meant that Ioan was left with permanent weakness in his hindquarters.

His first breeding season was wrecked by the illness, as he had only bred two ewes before he fell sick. But last year he bred all my ewes and I had a bouncing crop of lambs.

I was thrilled, exclaiming to David, my vet, “He walks like a drunken sailor but he still managed to breed every ewe!”

“Why are you so surprised?” David asked, smiling. “Don’t you know any drunks with big families?”

Second, I learned the accuracy of the truism that your ram is half your flock. (Every one of your future lambs will carry half his genes.) I chose Ioan out of a group of ram lambs, in ignorance, and mostly for sentimental reasons. I now have two of his purebred, but unregisterable, Clun Forest daughters, both out of my unregistered Clun ewe Blackberry. The first, Lily, looks exactly like her mother, and delights my eye. The second, born this year, looks exactly like her father and is in that way disappointing.

Ioan on summer pasture

Of course looks are not really important. All Ioan’s lambs, including the mutts bred out of my Lincoln/Corriedale/Romney cross ewes, are healthy and vigorous. That’s the main criterion. Still, part of the satisfaction of shepherding to me is watching beautiful sheep graze in the pasture. I love the Clun narrow, dark faces, the erect ears, the dark clean legs. Ioan had woolly back legs, and a thick woolly ruff around his jowls that felted into dreadlocks every winter. His second purebred daughter has exactly the same, and will pass those genes on.

Not a big deal, but a lesson for me. Next time I will pay closer attention to details.

Last night the barn felt lighter, simpler, as it always does when a problem male (the current bull, or my aggressive pony Punch) departs. The eleven ewes seemed a bit uncertain without their bossy leader, but they’ll soon grow accustomed to more space and less jostling at the hay racks.

My steer calf Rocky will miss Ioan. It has always been touching to me to see how boys across species enjoy the same sort of play — wrestling and bashing. Ioan mock-fought with every one of my bull calves over his three years. Georgie, Charlie, Rocky. When the calves were small, Ioan dominated them; when the calves grew large, the tables were turned. Yet it was clearly always in fun. Even when the bulls were more than twice Ioan’s weight, no one was ever hurt. They were buddies.

Ioan and Rocky this week

Yesterday before I brought Ioan into the barn to separate him for the buyer’s arrival, I saw him ram my bull calf Duke in the shoulder, trying to get the newest little guy to play.

I smiled, but found myself even more glad that he was going. I don’t need to be in the midst of war games.

Azalea and Her Lambs

December 16, 2010

Here’s an old post from my last lambing time, February 2010. The days passed in a blur of sleeplessness but I did write about them, and in many cases, take pictures. I just never got this one posted.

The single ewe I’d seen bred in the fall was Azalea, one of my purebred but unregisterable Clun Forest ewes that DH gave me for my birthday in 2008. Counting the dates, I knew Azalea was due February 12. In the days between my first set of lambs and this anticipated second round, I hustled to get more organized.

I built a lamb creep in a corner of the sheep stall. A livestock “creep” is an area where some animals can get in and some cannot. By spacing the vertical bars 8″ apart, I built it so lambs could scamper in and out but adult sheep could only fit their heads in to sniff. The creep is a safety zone. Lambs are often knocked around by ewes. The “teenaged” ewes, who have never seen a lamb before, are the worst offenders — think Mean Girls — but even a staid middle-aged mama will mash another ewe’s lambs into the ground if she’s irritated.

(To be rammed by a sheep’s bony skull is no joke. Years ago a protective ewe charged me and caught my hand against a wall; the hand was swollen and useless for days. Especially in the confines of a stall, a tiny lamb could easily be killed. Thus the creep.)

Across the barn aisle I also built a frame for heavy-gauge wire panels in Job’s old stall, to split it into lambing jugs. A “jug,” in sheep parlance, is a small area where mothers and lambs can be isolated to bond in their first days. Given that I still had six pregnant ewes, I had to be prepared. Dividing Job’s stall gave me two jugs, each 4’x6′.

And then I sat back to wait. As anyone knows, waiting for the birth of a baby is simultaneously tedious and anxiety-producing. Azalea was the only ewe I had a real “due date” for and I still had no idea when the lambs would arrive.  They might come early or late. With most animals you can have a rough idea because the vulva swells and body shape changes as the baby drops — but in a rotund sheep in full fleece, very little can be seen.  Every night starting on the 10th, I got up at 2 AM, pulled on my coveralls over my pajamas, scraped the truck windshield, and drove the mile down to the farm to check for new lambs.

Azalea just looked at me.

The rest of the animals grew accustomed to the lights flicking on. Birch and Katika would lurch to their feet, blinking. Punch thrust his head over his stall gate. The chickens would stretch a wing out over a foot and cluck sleepily. I’d toss the cows and horses a small flake of hay apiece in apology, snap off the lights, and drive home.

On the fifth night, DH rose early for a business trip. We had our tea and coffee at 3:30 AM. DH left at 4. I drank a second cup of coffee and trudged out to scrape ice off the truck. It was 15° F.

When I opened the barn door I heard the high-pitched crying of a lamb. All the ewes were agitated and noisy. I flicked on the lights. A new lamb was stumbling around in the crowded stall. I was surprised to see a single lamb — Azalea had been huge. Then I spotted a second, tiny black lamb lying ominously still on the ground. I swooped into the stall and scooped it up. It was soaking wet and deathly cold. You can tell a lot about a lamb’s temperature by putting the tip of your little finger in its mouth. This lamb’s mouth was icy. Holding the lamb and dodging the excited adult sheep, I ran out of the stall, snatched a towel from the grain room, and began to rub the lamb dry. To my joy I saw its ribs shudder as it took a ragged breath.

It had to get warm. Lambs should have an internal temperature of 101°. The only place in the barn even close to that temperature was my skin, at 98.6°. I unzipped my jacket, unsnapped my down vest, unzipped my coveralls, put the bloody, half-frozen lamb under my pajamas against my bare chest, and then buttoned everything back up, the lamb’s nose poking clear at my throat. (I’ve had so many slimy, ailing newborns of every variety under my shirt I’ve lost track. It can be inferred that I have a low squeamish response. I learned long ago that human beings are washable.)

I still had to deal with the second lamb, and Azalea. With one arm cradling the first lamb under my shirt, I edged back into the sheep stall and grabbed the second with my free hand. (Sigh — another ram. I so dearly want Clun ewes!) I put this little ram in the jug where he cried piteously. Usually a ewe will follow the sound of her new baby, but Azalea was a first-time mother and obviously disoriented and overwhelmed by the loud baa-ing of the flock.

“Hush!” I scolded the other sheep fruitlessly, until it dawned on me that they would be unlikely to make so much noise with their mouths full. Still cradling the sick lamb with one arm, with the other hand I cut strings on a bale and tossed hay. Instant peace! Oil on troubled waters is nothing compared to filled hay racks in a barn.

With difficulty, I managed to chivvy Azalea out of the flock and across the aisle into the jug. I threw the gate latch and turned on the heat lamp. Then I ran for the truck with the sick lamb under my clothes.

In my kitchen I kicked off my boots and coveralls, shrugged out of my jacket, and gently extricated the lamb. Oh, no! It was damp and chilled and didn’t appear to be breathing. Oh, baby, don’t you die on me!

A warm bath is a good solution for hypothermia. (Years ago I was tapping maples in the school sugarbush in a fierce wind when I became hypothermic and delirious, lying down in the snow. When he couldn’t rouse me, my friend Tommy radioed for a truck, dragged me out of the woods, bundled me into the passenger seat, and drove me home. His supervisor asked him seriously, “Did you strip off her clothes and put her in a hot bath?” Even telling me about this query the next day, Tommy was horrified with embarrassment.) I ran hot water in the kitchen sink, tested it with my free hand, and then floated the lamb in it, keeping his head above the surface. Come on, come on, come on!

In The Secret Garden, Dickon, the Yorkshire boy (and my favorite character), teaches Mary the word “wick,” meaning “alive.” I always think of this word when I’m handling animal newborns. They are so fragile, so directly centered on the knife-edge between living and dying. You can feel in your hands when the wick energy surges into them; similarly you can feel when it slackens and goes away.

I dried the now-warm, limp lamb with a towel. His head lolled. At last I had to admit to myself that he was quite dead.

I felt punched in the solar plexus. If only I hadn’t had that second cup of coffee! If only I’d pulled Azalea into a lambing jug by herself the night before! It seemed impossible that anything could be so perfect and yet — dead. I suddenly had great empathy for Victorians and their memento mori, daguerreotypes of dead infants.

But I couldn’t stop to think about it now. I had to check on the second lamb. I drove back down to the frozen farm. Oh, no! Not again! The second lamb was now huddled and silent on the hay. Azalea as an inexperienced mother had not licked him dry or fed him. She stood in a corner of the jug, regarding her baby suspiciously. Hypothermia and starvation are the number one killers of lambs.

Again I swooped in and scooped up an icy lamb, thrust him under my jacket, and drove home. Again I floated a lamb in my kitchen sink. But this time it worked. The lamb breathed, barely. I hauled him out, dripping, dried him thoroughly with a towel, and put him in a box with a hot water bottle.

Then I drove back down to the farm. (It is times like these when I can’t wait to live a hundred yards from my barn.) I cornered Azalea in the jug, trapped her against the wall with my shoulder, and milked some of her rich warm yellow colostrum into a jar.

In the kitchen I set up my doctoring box. For me, with my rotten memory, this always includes the relevant book. Managing Your Ewe and Her Newborn Lambs is my favorite sheep emergency companion. Laura Lawson recommended a shot of Vitamin B complex and an oral slug of Baby Lamb Strength, a energy mixture that resembles turgid molasses.

All morning long I fed the lamb (who would later be ear-tagged 03) every hour or two from a soda bottle fitted with a Pritchard teat. At first he was a weak infant swaddled in towels in my lap, his eyes closed as he sucked. By lunch time he was able to sit up and take an interest in the proceedings.

Soon he was able to wobble to his feet. Suddenly the recycling carton seemed a bit too small.

That afternoon I re-introduced 03 to his mama. I put a fleece jacket on him as an extra layer against the cold. Poor hormonal Azalea was bewildered and still suspicious…

…but luckily her bag was full to bursting and I knew her weak point. Azalea would go through fire for a cup of sweet feed. She was my wildest, smartest, greediest ewe. While Azalea was busy gobbling, 03 got securely latched onto a teat, and from then on it was clear sailing.

It was due to fall below zero overnight, so I cut out another lamb coat from an old fleece jacket and doubled them up at evening chores. At 8:30 PM Lucy and I went down to do a final check. All was well.

*    *    *


Azalea turned out to be a fabulous mother. 03 grew fat and strong. Here they are exactly three months later. (Azalea could always be picked out easily by the long tail her breeders never got around to docking.)

All spring Azalea also fed the lambs abandoned by my old ewe Mary. She was still just as wild as ever but she was such a hard worker. I adored her, and looked forward to years of her lambs.

Two weeks after this picture was taken, Azalea died mysteriously in Betty’s pasture overnight. There was not a mark on her. I suspect it was something she ate.

That’s farming.

Milking in winter

December 15, 2010

3° F this morning, with a mean little wind.  A grey landscape and spitting snow. While putting out the hay I pulled my turtleneck up over my nose to shield my face from the cold.

Milking at these temperatures is no fun. Milking means bare hands and inevitably, damp fingers.

I am as slow at milking as I am at all other physical tasks. Allen watched me milk once and shook his head, smiling. No dairy would hire me.

But my lack of speed is never a problem except in winter. Though I only take a gallon, leaving the rest for the calves, it may take me ten minutes to milk that gallon. My fingers ache and go numb. Every minute or two I shove a frozen bare hand to thaw in the warm pocket between Katika’s udder and her thigh. Similarly, at home I often revive my icy hands on the back of DH’s neck under his collar. Katika is much more tolerant of this maneuver than DH is!

When it falls below zero, I will leave all the milk for the calves.