Strange Weather

November 29, 2011

The weather has turned oddly warm, in the 40s and even 50s. While I was dashing to Maine for sheep, DH and Lucy skied (in shirt sleeves!) the last snow in the woods on Sunday. Now it is gone and we have dripping rain and fog under sullen skies.

Apart from the mud, the dearth of snow and ice is fine by me. I have to be on the road two days this week. I also have 75 bulbs still to plant, temporary fencing to tie up and put away, repairs to do to the Pig Palace before it’s shut tight for the season, new boards to nail up on the run-in shelter, more wiring waiting in the barn paddock, final painting and staining … plus any last weedwhacking I can get to in my spare time.

However my skiers are desolate. For their sakes I hope it turns cold again soon.

A Dash to Maine

November 28, 2011

Yesterday I did barn chores at 4:30 AM and by 5:30 was on the road to Maine. Yes, Maine! When I was in college I spent summers in Lubec, in the farthest downeast tip of the state, so the entire expanse is filed in my mind under NINETEEN-HOUR DRIVE — but in fact western Maine is only six hours away.

What a happy revelation! To think that I can drive six hours west and still be in New York, but six hours east will get me to Maine! As an adolescent I was convinced by the novels of Kenneth Roberts that no state could stack up to it, and now just seeing signs saying Androscoggin and Kennebec had me smiling at the wheel.

Why was I in Maine? To buy two Clun Forest ewe lambs from Kimberly Trider-Grant and her husband Arthur at Field’s Edge Farm in Leeds. They were willing to sell me two pretty girls at a price that would allow me to jump-start my registered flock.

Kim and Arthur could not have been kinder or more welcoming. Kim apologized for the mud in the barnyard (she doesn’t know mud!) as they took me for a tour of their beautiful barn, built by their son. It is large and airy and perfect for sheep in the cold and snowy northeast. I looked around in green envy, taking mental notes for improvements someday in my own barn.

Because the barn is right behind the house and Kim and Arthur are both fond of sheep, their sheep are much tamer than mine, which (since I live a mile away) currently see me up close only at feeding time, in winter, and at fence-moving time in summer. The Grants actually had a picnic table in the barnyard, and I imagined myself eating lunch or working on papers surrounded by contented sheep. How idyllic! Another great idea for “someday” — in a paddock from which cows and horses are excluded.

I found this photo of Arthur and part of the flock on their farm’s Facebook page.

Kim and Arthur’s five children are grown and they downsized to a smaller house and built this farm only in last half-dozen years. Kim designed the perfect, cozy farmhouse herself — incidentally making sure there was room for her woodburning cookstove in the kitchen. Wait a minute, I wanted to interrupt, you’re living my dream!

Kim is a knitter and is very knowledgeable about wool. She showed me the front of a sweater she had just finished, a lovely, complicated pattern of hand-knit cables. My big sister, my sister-in-law Margaret, all my crafty friends, and even Lucy would have been more informed and appreciative; I could only gape in awe. “That’s Angela’s wool,” she said, fingering the yarn affectionately. Kim sends her wool out for testing and has the test results neatly catalogued in a notebook. She knows the micron count of each of her sheep’s fleeces.  I wouldn’t recognize a micron if I met it in church. I immediately thought, I must get more serious about wool.

In the bustle of choosing the two lambs and loading them with Arthur into giant dog crates in my minivan (it was too raw and rainy to transport any creature in an open truck), I didn’t remember to photograph any of the gorgeous flock until the last minute, just before leaving, when I took this quick shot of a few ewes looking at me over their shoulders in curiosity.

I was thrilled to meet the Grants. Not only were they generous and thoughtful (Arthur packed me a lunch for the long trip home!) but I had a warm sense of sharing the same journey with Clun Forest sheep.  They have been shepherds for only a few years longer than I have, but on a larger, much more professional scale. Thus Kim is farther down the road, but not so far ahead that I am hopelessly behind. I was excited to think how much I can learn from her.

With my cows I have all my Keeping a Family Cow friends with whom to brainstorm and problem-solve. With my sheep, ever since my first mentor Bonnie moved away, I’ve been entirely on my own. As I drove home last night on lonely and twisting back byways, I was struck by the perfect metaphor — talking to Kim I felt much the same comfort as one has seeing the glow of red tail lights to follow in the dark. Kim and I are even discussing the possibility of sharing a nice-quality Clun ram in the future.

Meet Field’s Edge Geranium and Field’s Edge Magnolia.

The girls rode home in the van with only occasional bleats of bewilderment, listening with me to Christmas carols. They are in the lambing stall for now, and tomorrow will meet the rest of the crew.

Thank you, Kim and Arthur!

Plus Ça Change

November 25, 2011

As part of a routine physical I went in for a blood test myself this week. My results are back, too. It turns out I’m severely anemic. A normal hemoglobin count for women is 12-15. Mine is currently 8.9, and that’s with taking iron once a week.

I was first diagnosed with anemia three years ago. My hemoglobin then had fallen to 8.5, and I fainted in the kitchen while standing at the counter stirring my 5 AM coffee. I woke up in a pool of blood with my face cut and my glasses smashed, and had to crawl through the apartment to our bedroom to wake up DH so he could take me to the hospital. (I was amused to learn later that both our children heard the crash of my fall and both thought sleepily, “Whatever it is, Mom will take care of it,” and went back to sleep.) I had a black fringe of seven stitches in my chin for a week and was on iron supplements for the next few months.

So it’s good that we caught it this time before I fainted and fell out of the hayloft. Though we’ll check for more dire possibilities, I believe this recurring problem is merely a result of ongoing perimenopause. I’m back on iron and Vitamin C and we’ll test again in a couple of weeks.

Anemia causes fatigue. Unfortunately I don’t tend to pay much attention to vague symptoms like feeling tired. Generally God has to do something like throw me to the ground and split open my face before I notice health details. However two weeks ago D saw me and said, scowling, “What’s the matter with you! You look like an f-ing ghost!” and my friend Joanne, a nurse, stopped me in the school dining room and rolled down my lower eyelid. “Are you getting your blood checked soon?”

My friend Alison is also a nurse, and when I told her about my test results she pointed out that my levels were about the same as a post-chemo patient. She thought this might explain why I “sometimes feel so overwhelmed.”

This interested me.

“Al says chronic exhaustion from anemia might be why I feel emotional and overwhelmed so often,” I reported to DH.

Hmmm,” said DH.

“But the problem is, I’ve never noticed myself being any steadier or calmer when my iron is fine — have you?”

“Not really,” he admitted.

It will be good to get my iron back on track, but I think I’m stuck with my personality.

I am reminded of last spring, when my elderly friend Allen returned to work for me after a year away. I wanted to take him for a ride in my truck to show him the finished back acres. He opened the truck’s passenger door and a shower of tools and clutter fell out at his feet. I apologized profusely but Allen just lifted an eyebrow.

“Nothin’s changed around here, I see.”

Results Are In

November 24, 2011

Here at DH’s work Thanksgiving is always a hectic, pressured, breathless time, this year complicated by a surprise dump of six inches of heavy wet snow yesterday just as the three hundred guests were arriving in town. However despite all the flurry and stress DH and Lucy have managed to fit in quick before-breakfast and before-bedtime tours on cross country skis, so they are very cheerful.

As am I. Like everyone, I have plenty of anxieties dogging me in real life, but last night I received an email notification from the lab in Idaho that felt like a shot of pure happiness.

Both Katika and Moxie are pregnant! Hooray! If all goes well, Katika should calve in early July, Moxie in late July. I am thrilled.

Happy, happy Thanksgiving to all.

Safeguarding the Barn Cats

November 23, 2011

A few days ago I hinged and hung Dallas’s cat screen in the open dutch door of the barn. The purpose of this screen, made of scrap wood and welded wire, is to keep my barn cats safely in the barn at night.

This summer Freddie and Flossie learned to roam all over the farm. Wherever I went, they accompanied me like small dogs.

One or the other (most often Freddie) escorted me to feed the pigs. They walked me out to the cabin when I was de-cluttering the bunkhouse. They jumped into the truck bed to inspect my measurements before I sawed up boards on the tailgate. They supervised my painting and hammering. They oversaw my bulb planting. When I lay on the ground to bury fencing wire under gates I had to spit their waving tails out of my mouth.

Now in the fall their favorite thing is to help me put out hay in the pastures. My heart melts to see them trek from the barn, tails up, lifting their feet high, picking their way across the frosty grass, determined to reach me.

The goal is always to be petted. To make this easier they roll on the ground belly up, purring.

If I don’t immediately stop and bend down, they are not discouraged. They walk alongside my boots, pausing every yard or so to throw themselves on the ground in front of my feet. It appears as if they are suffering from a strange seizure disorder. More than once I have stepped on one accidentally, unable to see over a pile of hay. However they don’t hold a grudge. They are simply inviting my adoration.

Here is Freddie.

Aren’t I the cutest thing you’ve ever seen? Purr.

See? A quick snap of the neck and I’ve flipped. Aren’t I wonderful? Don’t you love me? Purr, purr.

I do love him, very much. I am absolutely foolish about these cats. When David, my vet, was last at the farm I told him that Freddie and Flossie were the dearest, friendliest cats I’d ever known.

“I’m impressed that you’ve kept them alive for a year,” he replied.

I felt a chill. We have coyotes in our woods. Because I cut all the trees and erected electric (rather than wooden post and rail) fences, there is virtually no cover for a fleeing cat between the woods and the barn. There is nothing to climb. I am planting trees but those whips are currently about two feet tall.

In October D was leaving after hunting and saw two coyotes crossing the north pasture at dusk. A week later I watched a coyote munching windfalls under the apple tree in broad daylight at 4 PM. With the cold moving in, predators are hungrier and bolder.

My internet friend Jessika in Maine says that the only way she has found to keep her barn cats safe from coyotes is to lock them up at night. Last winter I locked the kittens in the barn tack room with a litter box. But they were babies then. Now they prefer to sleep in the hayloft. They lift their heads sleepily when I climb up to throw down the morning bales.

I can’t close the barn tightly until it’s about 0° F, because with all the livestock breathing all night — especially the sheep with damp fleeces — the trapped humidity is overpowering. It freezes in a thick rime on the ceiling and windows, and eventually melts to stream down the walls. Not healthy. So I shut the big front doors to keep the poultry in, and leave the dutch door open for air.

Thus the cat screen.

Freddie and Flossie do not appreciate having their freedom curtailed. Craftily I sit down in the open front doorway until they come running to climb on my knees and rub their heads under my chin. Then I bundle one under each arm like a tired toddler, carry them inside, and pull the big doors closed.

I pray I can keep them safe through another winter. I hope they will always be twining around my legs and throwing themselves under my feet to trip me, purring.

Daffodils and Doctor Al

November 21, 2011

Yesterday it was in the low 40s with a cold rain and winds gusting at 35 mph. However I was snug because at last I had broken down and bought myself a set of Carhartt rain gear.

This stuff is tough. It is also large. I found a men’s small on sale and it is huge on me. As I am taller than almost all the men I work with, I continue to wonder where is hidden the race of Adirondackers who fill out the 3XL Carhartts I see hanging in the hardware stores.

I am still trying to finish planting my two hundred daffodil bulbs. My long-time dream has been to plant the entire top of Allen’s stone wall behind the house — an area that is narrow, bumpy, and hard to mow — with a mixture of daffodils and daylilies.

The famous White Flower Farm nursery sells this combination and promises months of carefree bloom. The daffodils are bright and cheery, and just when they fade, the daylilies come up to hide the spent leaves. Unfortunately White Flower Farm charges a couple of hundred dollars for each collection and I’d need a dozen to finish the length of the wall. And though the folks there were grateful when I politely pointed out a proofreading error in their catalog text, they sadly did not reward my eagle eye with a truckload of bulbs.

So instead I picked up plain old daffodils from Costco and have been trying to get them into the ground before it’s solid ice. I have been stymied by rocks. Though I knew the wall was built of boulders, I hadn’t realized the back-fill behind it was more stone than soil. I can barely force my father’s old bulb planter the necessary seven inches into the ground.

After fighting with frozen hands to tuck 125 behind the first section of wall, yesterday in the drizzle I began planting the rest in a drift under the birch trees along the driveway. Whenever I struck rock I just gave up and moved over, excusing the erratic pattern of holes by murmuring to myself, “It’s drifting! It’s drifting!”

*    *    *

At evening chores, my friends Alison and Tom stopped by the farm. Alison is a nurse and had cheerfully agreed to take a crack at drawing blood from my cows.

In the last couple of years a new company, BioTracking, has come up with a inexpensive blood test for pregnancy in ruminant animals. A starter test kit costs $15.00 and contains enough supplies for ten tests. For me, that works out to five years’ worth of testing. You mail a blood sample Second Day Air to the company and for $2.40 they will test it and email you the results within days. Even with shipping costs, this is much, much cheaper than having the vet come to the farm.

It can also be done earlier. The blood test will pick up pregnancy in cattle after 28 days. Palpation by a vet is risky if it is done before 90 days post-breeding. For large dairies, BioTracking’s two-month advance notice is extremely helpful, because if the test is negative they can arrange for a cow to be re-bred.

For me, it’s more in the nature of a sop to my impatience. If Katika or Moxie is not pregnant, I can’t do anything about it. My bull Duke is in the freezer. But at least I will know and can make informed decisions going forward.

The only part that concerned me was the blood draw. Here’s where dear Alison comes in. Nurses aren’t worried by needles.

I held Katika’s tail high (cows can’t kick if their tails are held up) and Al expertly jabbed the vein running invisibly along the underside of her tail. The vacuum tube immediately filled with blood.

I think we were both a little startled by how simple it was.

“I did it!” Alison exclaimed.

We put Katika back into her stall and I brought out Moxie. Moxie isn’t familiar with a stanchion yet so I simply tied her to a post and pushed her against the sheep stall. I pulled up her tail. A prick of the needle, a jump from Moxie, and it was all done.

Hooray for Alison, my hero!

The whole operation took about ten minutes, and then Alison and Tom were driving off to their next busy commitment. Aren’t they great?

This morning I put the marked blood samples in the mail to Idaho. If it weren’t for the holiday, I might have the results by Friday. As it is, I will probably hear in a week.

As my friend Susie says, I’m “keeping fingers, toes, and eyes crossed” — that both my girls are safely in calf.

A Rounded Life

November 20, 2011

Both my children were in New York City last weekend, Jon at Occupy Wall Street and Lucy on a visit with a school friend. The girls slept on the floor of a relative’s apartment on the Upper West Side. Lucy is an early riser and took this photograph of the skyline at dawn.

Though I grew up outside New York City, I am not a city person. I never have been. Both of my parents and all my siblings loved the city and all of them lived there for a time. Not me. With all the concrete I feel vaguely claustrophobic, uneasy, “cramped up and smothery,” as Huck Finn said.

DH also loves cities. I know it’s important for our children to be comfortable with new experiences, but I’ve always been glad to leave the urban piece to him and to others.

With her friend’s family Lucy had a fabulous time walking the streets, exploring Central Park, attending a dance festival, riding the Staten Island ferry past the Statue of Liberty, trying new foods, shopping in small markets. She came home exhausted and happy.

Yesterday she hiked Big Slide Mountain with a school group. Here she is on the summit in a snapping wind.

Though I myself am perfectly content mucking stalls and mending fences, I am so grateful my girl has these wide-ranging opportunities.

A Helping Hand

November 19, 2011

In the midst of other commitments this past week, I agreed to take a child for the school for the day. This boy had made a poor decision and had to be out of the program. It can be tough for a boarding school to manage brief suspensions in these situations and I am generally happy to help. I have a lot of empathy for confused adolescents.

Besides, I know that if the conditions are right, a day outside working usefully alongside an adult — even in the cold and wind — can be far more positive and instructive than sitting bored and resentful in detention.

I’ve learned that most children are happy to tackle even tough tasks if they can see obvious, measurable progress.  And of course, using lots of equipment makes it even better!

Dallas [not his real name] was cheerful as I fitted him with hearing protectors and eye goggles, and then taught him how to gas the weedwhacker, prime it, use the choke, and fire it up. While I did the dull work of mucking stalls and shoveling sand, he spent the morning slashing happily and noisily at five-foot raspberry canes smothering the driftway fence.

Using a hand saw, he cut down two fourteen-foot black cherry trees and threw them in the woods.

After lunch, he built a heavy-duty cat screen for the dutch door of the barn. (He measured the opening; I cut 2x4s with the Skilsaw; he screwed the pieces together with a battery drill, and cut and tacked the welded wire.) Then we combined our strength to load gates and other heavy items into the hayloft for the winter.

But the real excitement came when I taught him how to operate my lawnmower (without the blades engaged). Dallas was thrilled to learn about the clutch, the gears, the steering. Shoveling crusher run into the trailer and chugging the mower down the farm driveway to fill potholes was thrilling.

Whenever I peeked out from the barn I saw him grinning unconsciously to himself. I think if darkness had not fallen he would be out there still.

When he hopped into my truck at the end of the day to return to school, his cheeks were red and his eyes were shining.  He exclaimed, “Someday I’m going to buy a lawnmower!”

I thanked him for all his hard work.

“You’re welcome,” he said eagerly. “Do you think I could come back to work for you on Sunday?”

More Fall Clean-up

November 18, 2011

It has been a stressful last couple of weeks but, knock wood, life is momentarily back under control. In between the various family alarums and competing commitments I’ve managed to get quite a bit of my farm work list accomplished. God has been helpful and held back the snow. (Though I’ve been pleased, Lucy and DH peer outside every morning, hoping for white stuff, and gnash their teeth.)

While the temperature was above freezing last week I stained the trim on DH’s cabin that had been waiting for two years. I had been going to rent an extension ladder but my friend D heard my plans and lent me his.

D was untying the ladder from his roof rack after hunting when he said, “Got your mower back yet?” He knew one of the tasks on my list was to bring my old lawn tractor back from Betty’s field to store for winter.

“Actually, no, I was just speaking to Mike yesterday. He said I could borrow his trailer so I’ll probably run into town later for that.”

“How about them ramps you got?” He knew I have a pair of light metal ramps that I can use to drive equipment up onto my truck.

“Oh, well, you know —”

“Scared?” D said abruptly.

Indeed I was, very scared. The ramps are aluminum. They do not attach to the truck tailgate but merely rest against it. Driving the walk-behind brush hog up on the truck six weeks ago, I’d miscalculated, the ramps had slid apart, and I and the heavy brush hog had both fallen off the tailgate — luckily without injury, but with plenty of fright. Attempting to load the larger lawn tractor seemed an invitation to disaster. As the lawn tractor is not articulated, there would be a moment when the front of the machine was in the air before the mower deck slammed down into the truck bed.

“If you want, I’ll help you.”

Hallelujah! D is a heavy equipment operator who loads giant machines every day. My scary lawn tractor would be nothing to him.

We drove down to Betty’s field. I set up the ramps. Without the slightest hesitation D drove the mower up into the truck. It was a tight squeeze to fit the deck between the wheel wells but he parked it expertly and the job was done. Hooray! Isn’t it wonderful to have someone else take charge!

I drove us back to the farm. D lowered the tailgate and set up the ramps again, kicking loose stones out of the way. He casually mentioned loading a four-wheeler on a similar rocky driveway and ending up in the hospital for stitches. Oh.

Then he nodded at the mower in the truck. “OK. Get up there and back it off. I’ll brace the ramps.”

Me? Back it off the truck? You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“Get up there!” he snarled.

I climbed into the truck. I was sure he must be joking. “You’re kidding, right?”

I looked at his grim face. He was not kidding. In fact he was standing at the tailgate practically under the machine. I was sure I would do something wrong and he would be killed. “I don’t think —”

“Hurry up!” he snapped.

I sat down on the mower and turned the key. The engine roared. I looked over my shoulder again. “I really don’t think I can —”

D scowled ferociously. “Do it!”

Which was a more frightening prospect, D’s temper or death by lawnmower? That was easy. Terrified, I began inching the machine backward onto the ramps. There was a lump of ice in my stomach.

As the mower began to lurch over the arch in the ramps, I automatically pushed in the clutch to brake.

“Don’t stop!” D roared.

Startled, I released the clutch and zoomed down the ramps with a clatter. In a moment I was breathless and safe on the ground. Thank God. It was over and I was alive.

“Don’t never brake,” D’s voice said calmly, “goin’ down ramps. They’ll kick out and you’ll fall.”

When my heartbeat returned to normal I realized I could cross another chore off my list. Bring mower home from Betty’s. Check.

Only about a dozen more tasks and I’ll be as ready for winter as I can be.

Milk Bar at the Beach

November 11, 2011

My big sister and her husband are antique postcard dealers. Yesterday they sent me this French card from 1901. Laitière sur la Plage. Dairy on the Beach, or Milkmaid on the Beach — laitière can mean either one. [Click to enlarge.]

I love it. I can stare into the photograph for an hour, imagining that long-ago day on the beach in Berck-Plage in northern France.

Notice the bare feet of the women and the little girl. The white caps and the aprons tied over the long dresses. The gentleman’s striped pants and pointy-toed shoes. The fishing boat pulled up on the sand behind them.

The lady who is kneeling (is she the farmer’s wife?) appears to be milking into a cup for the eagerly waiting child. The milk pail is on the sand behind her.

Just what is needed on a chilly day at the beach: a cup of warm fresh milk, tapped straight from the cow!

And then the cow herself. Her only restraint is a cord looped around her horns — and that is lying loose on the sand. She must be perfectly content in the ocean breeze: she appears to be chewing her cud. But to me, the most amazing part:

Regardez those teats!

It’s one thing to know intellectually that cows today have been bred for smaller teats to accommodate milking machines, but the contrast is breathtaking.

Here’s a modern cow’s udder.

Now, look again at that udder from 110 years ago.

Those teats look like kielbasas!

I love history. Thank you, N and D, for this glimpse of Katika’s possible great, great grand-mere, living the good life on the beach in France.