Thursday, December 31, 2009

Winter Ground

In late December, my garden sits dotted in snow. The only green comes from the few spinach plants I neglected to pluck. While I turn to the pantry and supermarket for my produce, the animals still eat from the land. I turned the sheep and pony onto their winter pastures this week. These are the places the animals may only tread when the ground is summer hard or winter frozen. I don’t want hooves ripping the sod. The animals leave the pile of hay behind, and instead choose to paw away the snow and eat the greens hiding under winter’s blanket.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Between Christmas and the New Year

From Thanksgiving through Christmas, my calendar is full of work assignments, social obligations, shopping, Christmas cards, cooking, and other obligations. On December 26, my calendar is empty. For the first time in weeks, I turn my attention to writing. For the next several weeks, when snow and cold and darkness keep me inside, when others go into their hibernation mode, I will go into that furious winter writing mode.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Dewey Likes iTunes

When I return from a writing break, the calculator is open on my monitor.
As is iTunes.
Dewey also decided my novel needs a few hundred more X's.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Christmas Night

When I turn the car into the driveway, I notice the pair of eyeballs sparkling in the darkness. "Something's in the waterway," I say to my husband. It's probably a cat. The cats hunt for mice in the tall grasses of the waterway. When I see another set of eyeballs, I know it's not a cat. They do not hunt in pairs. As the car moves down the driveway, I see three, four, five, no six pairs of eyes. My husband thinks the worst. Had the neighbors cows gotten out? In the headlights, shapes emerge. Six does. Wind kept the deer from grazing the fields on Christmas morning. Now, the winds have settled, and once again, we see the Christmas deer.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Morning

On most Christmas mornings, I notice the silence. The road, never terribly busy, is quiet as people stay in their houses. The deer notice this too. In the low mid-morning light of December, they emerge from the woods. They come in twos and threes until more than twenty are grazing in the cornfield near our house. But we won’t see them this morning. Winds outside are gusting thirty miles per hour. The deer will take refuge in the woods, like we take refuge in our house.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Burying a piece of our lives

Dundee is buried next to Scuba in the pasture. My husband and I bought the two horses shortly after we bought the farm, and for the first few years, the horses lived in a run-in shed. It was a time of our lives when we had loads of optimism, and a lot less cash. Shortly after we bought Dundee, we had one saddle and two horses. But that didn't keep us from going on a trail ride. I offered my husband my saddle and rode Scuba bareback. I'm not sure I'd do that today. As with age comes a little more caution and a little less of the carefree attitude.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Bookends-Part 3

Horses are herd animals and enjoy having other horses around. Like people, they like some horses better than others.
Scuba, my old mare, befriended all types of creatures – goats, cats, other horses. Dundee, our old gelding, loved Scuba. They lived together for more than a decade, and she tolerated his pushy mannerisms and neediness. They groomed one another and kept flies off each others’ faces.
If Dundee would have died first, Scuba would have mourned his death but she would have moved on and buddied up with Lily, my Haflinger mare, and been quite happy.
Dundee though was lost without Scuba. When my old mare died in October, his decline was rapid.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Bookends-Part 2

Bookends-Part2 Whenever I hear Simon and Garfunkel’s Old Friends song, I think of Mr. Bee and Joe, two geldings I worked with during my college years. Mr. Bee, a white Arabian well into his 30s, and Joe, a 21-year-old sorrel Quarter Horse with bad knees, were part of the horse and pony string at a YMCA camp. When not giving young children trail rides, they stood head to tail and swooshed flies off each other. In that herd of horses, most got along. A few disliked each other. And a few were like Mr. Bee and Joe – two old friends who sat on the park bench like bookends.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Bookends-Part 1

When I brought a kitten and an adult cat home, my first hope was that they didn't kill each other. I would have been pleased if they tolerated each other. I'm delighted that they buddied up. Louie, the adult cat, grooms and plays with the kitty and provides a warm place to sleep.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Season for Claws

As the kitten scales my jeans and sweatshirt, then perches on my shoulder, I pat myself on the other shoulder. How brilliant to adopt a kitten in winter when clothing is heavy and often layered. The kitten nips my ear. I ponder turning down the thermostat even lower and donning a hat.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Hay Hierachy

Throughout the summer and fall, hay is harvested and stored in a mow that holds a few thousand bales. Each month, we transfer 30-60 bales to the barn where we keep the horses and sheep. When doing so, I try to grab a variety -- some first, second, and third cutting. The first cutting usually has the most grasses and weeds and the least amount of alfalfa. The third cutting has the most alfalfa -- a rich forage that the animals love -- and sometimes don't need. At any given time, I have two, sometimes three, bales of hay open in the barn. The geriatric horse is served what the critters describe as "the best" -- the hay flakes with the most alfalfa. The next-best goes to ewe lambs, and then the pastured ewes. Lily, the easy-keeping pony, is relegated to the grass hay that has little to no alfalfa.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Living with Cats

Accepting a cat into your home means ceding control. I spent the morning trying to reason with a two-pound kitten who refused to understand why it was unacceptable to climb my jeans and perch on my shoulder when I was addressing Christmas cards, filling out forms, washing dishes, making dinner, writing. With kitten on shoulder, I give pitiful looks to pitiful Border collie eyes inside crates. "We could take care of that kitty," the two Border collies plead.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Home Office: The Reality

I make telephone calls. A telephone is squeezed between my ear and left shoulder. On my right shoulder sits the kitten, listening, waiting for me to do something exciting.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Holiday Baking

I don't use the index when looking for recipes. Instead, I leaf through the cookbook, looking for the tell-tale sign of a beloved recipe -- bent pages, stuck-together pages, pages dotted with bits of batter. The banana nutbread recipe was in the blue cookbook. As I looked at the recipe, I traveled in time to when I first started making it -- before I married, when I lived in a little rented cottage in the country. I don't bake as much as I did then. Now, I have animals, husband, other hobbies to distract me. As I crack the eggs into the bowl, I note the intense yellow-orange yolks, and think this may be a Christmas first. Until the past few days, the grass has remained green and the hens have been eating it -- causing their yolks to remain the yellow-orange of summer. My holiday baking will carry an extra dose of sunshine this year.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Inefficiency of Office Cats

How am I supposed to work when a kitty wants to chase the curser across the monitor? When another insists on being petted? When a wrestle-fest is going on just a few feet away?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

If spending the winter on an Ohio farm...

I'd take: 1. Mountain Horse Winter Riding Coat -- Truth is I seldom ride in it. I wear it for chores, walking the dogs, hikes. The canvas duck keeps out the wind. Its cut (below the butt) and design provide warmth and room to move. 2. Hoodie -- There's nothing like putting up the hood when the winds are a-blowing. 3. Wool socks -- Warm -- and not so cold when they get wet. 4. Long underwear -- Silk provide some warmth without the bulk on cold days. Soft wool provide lots of warmth on freezing days. 5. A lapcat. My Border collies would take: An owner that likes to spend time outdoors.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

His Name's Louie, Not Gus

Sometimes an animal will haunt you.
We went to the animal shelter to look at Gus, a big, loveable neutered male cat. I loved everything about him except that he was declawed. Because all of my cats venture outside, they need claws.
That Saturday, we left the shelter with a kitten and a memory of Gus.
The odds of an adult cat being adopted from a shelter are low. The adult cats in the adoption room were there for a variety of reasons -- owner moving, owner divorcing. Over the weekend, as we played with the kitty, we thought, "Why not give Gus a chance?"
A call to the shelter revealed he was still there. When I adopted him, the shelter worker said, "By the way, they called him Louie." The shelter staff had given him the name Gus.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Christmas Photo

What is it about Christmas that makes you dress up your animals and take their photos? One of the ewe lambs fell victim to the photo shoot this year. In years past, it's been dogs, cats, and horses. The only critter immune from the dreaded Christmas photo shoot is the llama. One year, after placing a Santa hat on him, I feared I would actually experience llama spit.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Freezing Time

The freezing temperatures change my routine. Water for the chickens, the horses, the sheep, is no longer a given. The horses are easy. More than a month ago, I cleaned out and checked the heaters for the automatic waterers. All I do now is plug them in, and keep an eye on them. The chickens require a change of routine. We have two chicken sheds -- so we keep four waterers. I fill two with warm water and give them to the chickens. The frozen waterers, I take inside to thaw for the evening routine. Sheep are a little trickier. I have one heated bucket -- and two separate flocks. One gets the heated bucket, the other gets a rubber bucket. I break the ice, empty and fill again. On the first frozen morning, the chores seem to take twice as long. In a week, they will be routine again.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

A Christmas Present

For Christmas time, we decided to give a cat a home... and the local shelter staff one less cat to euthanize. They say that it's common to take in 25-30 cats a day... and adopt out only a handful a week. My Border collies are quite unsure about this... He may be a little guy, but oh, he has such a scary hiss and spit!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Herding a Fly

I look up from writing and see Caeli, my Border collie, lying on the futon and staring intently at a fly on the comforter. That stare usually makes sheep run. The fly doesn’t move. A few minutes later, Caeli shows her teeth – a move that would send the sheep into the next county. The fly doesn’t respond. She ups the ante and grips it. The fly is dead.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Junior High all over again

Sheep have their family groups – or cliques. Ewes stick with their mothers and grandmothers, even when they reach adulthood and have their own lambs. Twin ewes are friends for life. During breeding season, we separate our flock. We place the five ewe lambs deemed too small for breeding into a separate pasture. The cliques remain. The two bottle lambs hang out with the flock but bonded with us when they were young. The twin ewe lambs bonded with each other – and still want to hang out with their mother and the larger flock. The fifth lamb was uncertain what group to join. Food decided for her. The bottle lambs are less afraid of people and come to the barn for hay. Number Five discovered that and hangs out with them, leaving the twin ewe lambs to stand at the fence and call for their mother.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Classifying Cold

Spend a few winters on the farm, and you learn that a thermometer does not adequately measure cold. If given a choice, between a 40-degree damp cold that wraps itself around you like a heavy wet blanket, or the 40-degree windy cold that forces icy air into crevices and pores, or the 20-degree still, sunny cold that brings the joy of winter into focus, I'll take the latter.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Horses and Marriage

When we built the horse barn, I said, “Even though we have two horses, we need four stalls – two for horses, one for tack and one for the goat.” I thought, “When these two retire, I’ll need a stall for a third horse.” When we moved hay this weekend, he said, “The weather is nice, let’s move hay and fill the spare horse stall with it. What he thought, “If we leave the stall empty, she’ll get another horse.”

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Cutting the Christmas Tree

Although we'd shed our coats while moving hay, we were still sweaty when we, dressed in sweatshirts and jeans, climbed into the truck. Outside, the grass, still green, soaked in the afternoon sun. "We need Christmas music," I told my husband. "But it doesn't feel like Christmas," he said. We traditionally cut our Christmas tree on the weekend following Thanksgiving. Over the years, we've walked the tree farm in biting wind, rain, sunshine, slush and snow. "Remember the time when the snow was falling in big flakes, the ground was blanketed, it was in the 20's, and there was no wind?" he asked. I nodded. The radio played Silver Bells. I rolled down the window a few inches, hoping the 50-degree air would dry the sweat from my face.

Friday, November 27, 2009

A Green Thanksgiving

As I walk by the raised beds, I marvel at the dark green spinach, the green and purple lettuce leaves. When I planted the spinach and lettuce seeds in August, I didn't expect them to last this late into the year. But we've had a warm fall, and so they, along with the grass remain green. I continue to watch the weather forecast, trying to determine the last day to pick them before the freeze of winter extinguishes the green.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Giving Thanks: Lunch Hour

I am thankful for those days: When I can step outside at noon and feel a cold that requires a jacket, but not gloves. When I shovel fifty pounds of manure from stalls, and take the dogs for a walk through harvested fields. When I try to convince nine ewe lambs to go into a stall, and only the two pink-nosed bottle babies oblige. When I bring out the Border collie, who is thankful to work the sheep during my lunch break.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Looking for Gold in the Corn Field

I took a short cut through the corn field and stepped into my childhood. Burlap bag in tow, I walked through the harvested field, looking for ears of corn the combine missed. I stepped on husks, hoping to feel the hard cylinder of corn instead of the pillow of cob. After what seemed like hours, I dragged the bag of corn home. Twice a day, I gave the horses their corn on the cob, and watched in delight as their teeth zigged down the ear, leaving only the cob behind.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A November walk

When the grey, cold and damp blanket of November settles across the land, I put on: My wool socks Heavy jeans Wool long underwear Turtleneck Hooded sweatshirt Windbreaker And dare it to keep me inside.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Ewes are my Canvas

My ewes look like they've been attacked by a three-year-old and a box of Crayolas. They have red, orange and blue streaks on their heads and backs. Grease sticks are a temporary way to mark sheep that have been inspected, dewormed, trimmed, sold, etc. When looking at a blanket of white backs, it's much easier to see a red stripe down the back than to read a numbered ear tag. It's also a lot of fun to add color to the flock.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Sheep Mosh Pit

It was deworming time today, and I was on my own. So I packed a dozen ewes in the six-by-eight foot stall, grabbed the deworming syringe and grease pencil, then stepped among the sheep. Catching sheep is easier when they're packed together. You just wade toward your victim, grab her head and push her to the wall. There's no quick getaways because she has nowhere to go. Except for the speckled ewe lamb. She leaps and swims on the backs of others until she falls into a space and lands on the ground again.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Certain Friends

Live on a farm, and you learn to edit stories about farm life. Only certain friends will understand and appreciate some of the farm experiences. When the Border collie eats one-third of the lemon meringue pie cooling on the counter, I know that certain friends would find it acceptable to eat the part that's not been touched by dog tongue. I tell the story and share the pie with them. Certain friends will want to know about the critter found in the basement, and how we disposed of it. In exchange for these tales, certain friends will tell about the bat and rat that found their way into their houses. And together, we will laugh and commiserate about farm life.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

When Fear Trumps Hunger

My pony mare was born with a voracious appetite, insatiable curiosity, and a fear of mountain lions hiding in grass. This means she won't venture into the front yard, where the grass is lush, unless accompanied by another, braver horse or, like on this morning, when the sheep are grazing in an adjacent pasture.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Time for the Times

When a fellow writer on Monday mentioned an article in the Times’ Sunday Styles section, I felt a touch of envy. It takes days for me to read the Sunday Times, and I wouldn’t get to that article until mid-week. It’s not that I’m a slow reader, but that a farm and its critters demand my time. But as I throw a Frisbee across the yard and watch my Border collie leap into the air to retrieve it, As I bury my fingers in the ewes’ coats, As I watch the chickens play keep-away with an apple core, I feel gratitude.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Comfortable Lawn

We don't use herbicides, pesticides or synthetic fertilizers on our yard. So the yard – a natural mix of grasses, clover, dandelions, weeds – looks lived in. Underneath the surface live worms, insects, moles. Above it, walk dogs, cats, humans, the occasional chicken and horse -- all attracted to its wild mix.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Ruminating

It is mid-morning, and the ewes have returned from the pasture. They are lying in the paddock, their heads tilted slightly upward, chewing on their cuds. It's a moment of absolute contentment. I wonder if I could achieve that if I were given several pieces of grape Bubblelicious.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Places I Seldom Go

Because our house sits in the middle of a 75-acre farm, I must walk a quarter-mile to reach some of the farm's borders. Yet I've been to those borders more than I've been to places just feet from our home. In the front corner of our yard sits a group of trees and a lily bed that I pass when I mow the grass. This weekend, when the temperatures soared into the 60s, I ventured to that spot to clean out the lily bed -- a task I haven't done for a few years. I was amazed at the vegetation that invaded during my absence. A few briars and saplings so big they required a saw. And I took a break from cutting and pulling weeds to admire the solitude and beauty in a spot I seldom go.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Harvest Sounds

Diesels engines drone into the night. A wet fall delayed harvest. Now, during the first week of November, the sun emerged, drying the fields and giving farmers a window of days to harvest fields before the first snowflakes of the season arrive. At night, when darkness falls, I see those lights lumbering through the fields and hear the combines picking corn and the trucks carrying it away. During the day, I drive by the grain elevator where trucks and grain wagons are waiting in line to deliver the harvest. I look at the weather forecast and see the activity will come to a stand-still in a few days.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Capturing the Sun

At this time of year, I rush to complete my work, so I can walk the dogs and ride my horse in the harvested fields before the sun disappears and leaves me with hours of cold, hours of darkness.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Side of Beef: Part 3

When I picked up my frozen, processed lamb, two men were picking up beef. I stepped inside the office area and waited my turn. The butcher brought trays of packaged meat from the freezer and sat them in the lobby area where the guys took them and transferred them into boxes in their SUV. With each trip into the lobby, the guys had comments, like: "There's more?" "Where are we going to put it all?" "Another tray?" At which point, I asked if they had bought a half or a whole beef. They were picking up a whole beef plus a quarter (probably close to 600 pounds of beef). The trays kept coming out. The comments continued. "We should of brought the truck." "We should have brought the livestock trailer we brought the cow in." I walked outside and saw the vehicle was squatting. Not bad. But squatting. The guys were falling behind and the trays of frozen meat were stacking up in the lobby. The butcher turns to me and ask what I'm there to pick up. A lamb, I say. I bring in the cooler, load it with 40 pounds of meat, and walk out, and smile at the guys who are still trying to fit packages of beef in the back of their vehicle.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Side of Beef: Part 2

Ask how many pounds of packaged and processed meat is in a steer, a hog, a lamb, and you'll get that vague answer: it depends. Obviously the size of the animal makes a difference. It also matters how you have it processed. Are you getting a lot of cuts with the bone or having it deboned? But, let me give you a hint. If you're ordering a whole beef, you'd better have an extra freezer, and you may not try to haul the beef away from the butcher in your car.

Monday, November 2, 2009

A Side of Beef: Part 1

I grew up in the age where chicken came pre-cut, packaged and wrapped -- in breasts, wings, thighs and drums, where steaks came two to a pack. Years ago, I joined the local-eating movement and tried to limit my meat to what we or the neighbor raised. My chickens are killed and plucked at a local butcher and returned to me whole. Another butcher slaughters and processes our lamb and beef. I've learned that chickens aren't all breasts, that lambs aren't all chops, and steers aren't all steak. In other words, I've learned where the cuts of meat come from on an animal -- and that there's a limited supply of prime cuts. But as I've learned to make chicken and dumplings with chicken legs and thighs, to cook roasts, and to assemble stews, I've also changed my definition of prime.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Carbon Footprint

No oil or gas line runs to our house. If we wish to warm our house, we must purchase heating oil in bulk or cut firewood. Usually in the summer, a truck with heating oil delivers fuel for the coming year. In the fall and winter, we cut and split wood for heating the home 12-18 months into the future. Seeing 100 gallons of heating oil and skids of stacked firewood gives us a visual about how much fuel we use to stay warm. And, it makes us stock up on wool socks, sweatshirts and long underwear.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

His Name is Rio

And he dances across the land.
Since the new foster dog arrived, I can't get the Duran Duran song out of my head.
I wonder if Rio likes the song?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Transfer of Life

A tree can take years to die. As I walk in the woods, I notice the thinning leaves, the loosening barks. The insects do too. Before the tree lets out its last leaves, the insects are making the tree its home. The raccoons and birds are scouting out snags and future nests.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Dying Trees

Want to find the dying trees? Go into the woods in the fall and winter. I used to look for standing dead trees during the summer months. In a woods brimming with foliage, the trees without leaves should be easy to spot. But try following one of thousands of tree trunks from ground to top. Try determining what limbs belong to specific trees. I look for standing dead in late fall and winter, when the leaves have fallen. Then I can see the telltale signs of bark shedding from the tree. I can look into the tree canopy and spot the branches that have lost their capillary limbs.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Warming Units of Trees

Heating with wood changes the way I look at trees. Ask me how big a tree is, and I’ll tell you it’s a one-day tree, a one-week tree, or the very rare, two-week tree. I know how many logs it takes to heat our home on a January day. When I look at a tree, I see its height and divide it into 19-inch sections, the length needed to fit in our wood-burning stove. I wrap my hands, and sometimes arms, around its circumference, and estimate how many times we'll have to split the logs. Yesterday, we cut wood: three one-day trees, a four-day one and a one-week one.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Chainsaw Music

Weeks after we bought a wood-burning stove I accompanied a friend to a craft show. Near her booth, a chainsaw artist was carving a figure out of a log. “Hear that noise?” she asked. I nodded, not sure where she was going with the conversation. “Learn to love it,” she said, “you’re going to be cutting a lot of wood in the years to come.”

Friday, October 23, 2009

Ladybug, Ladybug Don't Come in my Home

On the third day of Indian Summer, the Asian ladybugs emerge. With each passing hour of sunshine, they multiply on the south-facing doors and windows, and then spread to the other sides of the house and barns. They are looking for crevices, entrances, places to call home for the winter. In a few weeks, when the cold weather settles in, they will disappear, forgotten about until the next warm days of fall.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Desire to Work

Sometimes the desire to work is so strong that my dog forgets about some basic things. Like pottying duties. And potential pain. And that it's best to herd sheep, rather than other dogs. And that, yes, hikes are canceled due to a bloody eye. I didn't get a before photo of the eye -- just the post-stitching one.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

When Seasons Clash

Live on a farm, and you become aware of the sweet smell of curing hay that comes with summer, and the dank, earthy, rotting smells that comes with fall. On some mornings those smells collide. When temperatures in the 60s and sun was forecast this week, the farmer headed to the hay fields for a final cutting of alfalfa. So, this morning, when temperatures dipped into the 40s, I donned a sweatshirt and jacket for the pre-dawn walk. I took in the fall smell of decaying leaves and the sweet summer smell of curing hay.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Long-Term Foster Dogs

Why do some dogs wait in foster care for a year or longer before they find their forever home?
I work with a rescue group and sometimes we have dogs in rescue for more than a year. The first question people ask is -- what is wrong with them?
Pictured here is Caley -- a long-term foster we had several years back. We had her so long that she was trick-trained and agility trained.
People shied away from her because she was five years old.
She eventually found a home with a family who couldn't believe their good fortune in finding such a friendly, fun-loving, well-trained dog.

Monday, October 19, 2009

A Lesson in Maturity

When I entered Tag in the Buckeye Border Collie Rescue herding clinic over the weekend, I expected him to offer comic relief. His job is working people. Oh, over the years, I've tried him in many dog sports. It took him months to get over his fear of PVC pipes in agility classes. He does agility -- but he doesn't live for it. The same is true of obedience. When I took him to a herding trainer, Tag, then 1.5 years old, found the sheep a little frightening -- and the sheep knew it. They stomped at him. But Tag loves people -- and over the years, I've taken him to BBCR events, my workplace, the barn where I keep my horse, etc. He's a lover, not a fighter, I tell people. This spring, when I was bottle feeding two lambs, he stood in the pen with me, sniffing the lambs. I just don't expect him to herd the sheep, I told the herding instructor this weekend. Tag surprised me. He started circling and moving the sheep. My little boy is finally growing up.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Farm Instruction Manual: Critters in the Basement

When we bought the farmhouse, it had five exterior doors for humans, and several that animals created. Our century-old farmhouse sits on a stone foundation. Over time, cracks and holes develop. Groundhogs, with their amazing digging ability, discovered ways to burrow under the front porch. From there, one tunneled into the basement. What does one do when she walks into the basement and sees a furry, breathing ball? I backed up slowly. I informed my husband. I took the dogs for a walk. When a critter takes up residence in your residence, you have few options. Even if we were able to shoo it outside, it would surely return. Shooting it with a gun was not an option, as it was lying near the heating oil tank. My husband used his archery skills. Over the years, we've sealed cracks and holes, closed egresses, and come to realize that animals may try to find ways into our home.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Farm Instruction Manual: Found Pony

When a childhood dream comes true in adulthood, the reaction is not the same. Thus, when Tag found a pony early one morning, I didn't scream with delight. First, I was surprised. Then worried. How would I convince my husband that the Border collie found a pony in the fence row? I put the dogs inside, grabbed a lead rope, and went out to inspect Tag’s find. The pony wore no halter. I’d never seen him before and had no idea where he belonged. I put him in a box stall, and called the sheriff’s office. “I found a pony,” I told the dispatcher. “Good for you,” she said. Not really. Apparently no one reported losing a pony. She took down my information. I did morning chores. I took the dogs on a walk. No one drove down my driveway asking if I'd seen a pony. I stepped inside to an answering machine that wasn’t blinking. If I didn’t want a pony sticking around, I’d better be proactive. I got in the car and started driving the country roads looking for homes that might house a pony. When a boy answered the door at one home, I asked if he had a pony. Yes, he told me. “Where is it?” “In the barn.” I asked him to go check. No, he said the pony was missing. His parents came to get the pony. They thanked me for taking care of him. I thanked them for reminding me of my childhood dream – waking up and discovering the gift of a pony.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Farm Instruction Manual: Lost Horse

Upon arriving home from work late one afternoon, I found a note from a neighbor attached to my back door.
"Your horse was last seen running east from our house," it read.
A call to the neighbor revealed that Scuba, who had been on the farm eight days, had hopped over the fence and was grazing in a bean field when a farmer spotted her. Not knowing who she belonged to, he led her to the neighbor's house. Before he could reach the house, dogs spooked Scuba and she took off.
It was early November and daylight was disappearing fast.
As a former endurance rider, I knew horses could travel miles. I also knew it was getting dark, and there were lots of wooded areas and standing corn fields around us.
I went for the easy step first. I called the sheriff's office. No one had reported a loose horse. By that point, my husband was home. We got in our cars and began stopping at all houses with horses. As we too were relatively new to the area, this wasn't an easy task.
After canvassing houses within a mile radius, our search turned up nothing. My husband got out his spotlight and began driving the country roads, spotlighting fields and woods. While doing this, a passerby stopped.
"You spotting for coon or a horse?" the man asked.
When he'd arrived home from work, he'd found Scuba, our grey mare, hanging out with his blind Appaloosa gelding. He'd put her in the barn and started looking for her owner. He lived about three miles away.
When I arrived at his farm, I gave my mare a big hug. "Scuba, you ready to go home?" I asked.
The man looked at me oddly. "Her name's Scuba?" he asked.
When I nodded yes, he told me he was a dive instructor. Somehow my mare had managed to find one of the few scuba divers in the flatlands of Ohio.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Instructions Not Included

When we bought a car, it came with an operating manual. So did the lawnmower, tractor, weed eater, water heater, microwave, dish washer, telephone. The farm did not. So how do we know what to do when a horse disappears, or we find one? Or when I find a furry, breathing ball in the basement? An unwelcome critter in the barn? Or two dozen eyes and mooing outside the front window? What happens when a stream runs over the driveway? Or snow blocks it? We have to figure it out.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Watching the Merry-Go-Round

Critters give us the excuse to stop and watch and wonder. We separated the older ewes from the ewe lambs recently. They are in adjoining pastures for now, and the older ewes are in the area with the chicken shed. Because the ewe lambs didn't have much pasture, I gave them hay near the chicken shed, and I noticed the older ewes are playing follow the leader, walking single file around the chicken shed. Do they have a leader? I wonder as they walk circle after circle. What will cause them to stop the game? And what would people think if they saw an adult staring at sheep walking in circles on a frosty Sunday morning?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Fall Cleaning

Like during spring cleaning, I battle nature – the rain, the winds, frost, and nightfall – to complete the outside yard work. But unlike spring cleaning, resignation, rather than hope, follows me as I pull up the tomato and pepper plants, remove the dead lily stalks, mow the grass and mulch the leaves for a final time this year.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Tag and the Wood Stove

I built a fire in the wood stove this morning, and my faithful, always-by-my-side Border collie abandoned me. Rather than sleeping at my feet in my office, he stayed by the stove, basking in and sucking up the heat.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Handling Sheep

How I learn to handle sheep: Read books. Study diagrams. Talk with sheep owners. Trial and error when I try to move them from pasture to pasture or into the barn. How Caeli, my Border collie, learns to handle sheep: She's born with the instinct.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Scuba: The Name Game

Sometimes animals name themselves. When I bought Scuba, her name was Daisy. My childhood horse’s name was Blossom, and I was ready to move on from the flower names. [Yes, when I later bought Lily, the Haflinger, I just resigned myself to having equine flower children]. But when buying Daisy, I decided a name change was in order. Because I bought Scuba before we had fenced in the pasture, a good friend offered to keep her for a few months. After a week, that good friend commented how much more water five horses drink than four. A week later, she discovered why. Scuba [then Daisy] popped her front feet into the livestock tank and splashed in the water to cool off. She became Scuba after that. And never have I ridden a horse that loved water as much as she. When crossing a stream, she had to stop and splash, drenching me in the process. At home, when I turned on the hose, she nickered, happily -- trying to figure out how to roll in the stream of water.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Good-bye to a Great Grey Mare

Scuba never was a cover girl, though she once made the back page of EQUUS. She was the girl with the great personality. Not that she was ugly. She just tended to be on the drafty side, and there was always a better-looking horse in the barn. But there was never a horse I trusted more to bushwhack through the brush, jump over logs, or swim across a river. She was always the one to greet me with a throaty nicker, and the one who tolerated the cat and the chicken who wanted to lounge on her back and the goat who chewed her tail. When kids visited the farm, she was the one they brushed and the one they rode. Yesterday we said good-bye to Scuba after she suffered a severe case of laminitis. I’ll miss seeing the old gray mare and feeding her treats and listening to that throaty greeting.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Farmhouse: Flooring

I ran my fingers through the carpet samples at the floor store and imagined myself running barefoot through rooms of it. Then reality hit. I live in a farmhouse where carpet collects every piece of dirt, every hair and holds it in its grasp. I needed something easy to clean, and so we have vinyl, laminate, ceramic tile, and painted wood floors, and carpet remains something to be enjoyed in other people's houses.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Fixer-Upper Farmhouse

The scariest thing about the fixer-up farmhouse that my husband and I bought more than a decade ago wasn't the window frames that let in snow nor the pipes that could go into a "history of plumbing display."
It was the carpet.
The stairs and all the upstairs rooms were layered in a thick, plush white carpet.
I can't wear a white shirt for more than 10 minutes without spilling something on it. How could I -- and the dogs and cats and husband -- keep carpet in a house clean? The fact that the family who lived there previously -- husband, wife, and five children who raised hogs -- kept the carpet clean provided little solace.
My husband must have realized the futility. When one of the dogs had an accident on the carpet, he offered to clean it. When I walked into the room, I discovered he'd taken his utility knife and cut out the soiled carpet.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Hair Love Affair

I love her hair, even if it means:
Trimming the bridle path monthly.
Detangling the locks.
Cutting the hair around the fetlocks [ankles] twice a year for mud maintenance.
Crafting a French braid on both sides of the mane before a show.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Non-Hunters

Live in a farmhouse and you want a cat that catches fuzzy, squeaky mice.
Unfortunately, mine is only interested in the grey electronic ones.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Hunting to Hunt

Trick lives to hunt. When he’s not hunting for dinner – sparrows and mice, he’s hunting the lambs, dogs, me. The ewes stomp at him when he enters their pasture. They are not amused by his attempts to grab the lambs around their necks and lick milk from their mouths. I laugh when he tucks himself between clumps of grass and pounces at me as I walk by. He grabs my leg, then sprints away. The older dogs ignore his pounces. The puppies, though, find him a great play toy. They don't mind having an 11-pound cat tackle them and wrestle them to the ground.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Hunting to Eat

Some cats hunt to hunt, and some, like the Great Black and White Hunter, hunt to eat. This guy lived to eat, sleep and cuddle. Hunting was a means to eat mice -- and especially rabbit -- which were both much tastier than kibble. His hunting routine went like this: Rise from nap. Walk into field. Catch mice or rabbit. [He was especially stealthy and agile for a 17-pound cat.] Eat mice or rabbit. Resume nap. Elapsed time: Less than five minutes.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Barn Cat

When Trick brought a mouse to me, I decided to keep him – the cat, not the mouse. A cat that hunts is a valuable asset on the farm. In an ideal world, mice would stay in the fields where cats and birds would hunt them for dinner. In reality, the mice find their ways to the barns. Trapping and poisoning are not options, as we have free-range chickens and dogs and cats. So, we rely on cats for mouse control. But not all cats are good hunters. Two of our three cats fall into that category. Oh, they occasionally catch a small mouse and make a point of showing it off. I think it’s so I’ll keep feeding them. But Trick hunts.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Instead of Writing

I Google my name Read the New York Times Make a to-do list Take the dogs for a walk Make soup Clean my office Clean horse stalls Google friends’ names Brush the dog’s teeth Redecorate my office Try my hand at French cooking Google my ex-friends’ names Dress the dogs in costumes Give the horses a hair cut Make a six-course meal Blog

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Confessions of a Lazy Gardener

In early fall, when the weeds grown taller than the tomatoes, I fire up the lawnmower. The blades shred the weeds, the plants, the mulch, until I have a four-inch high patch of stubble. I let the hens into the garden, throw in some horse manure for good measure. By spring, the garden plot is ready for another season of optimism.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Sleeping Horses

I can let sleeping dogs lie. Not so, sleeping horses. Being prey animals, horses often sleep standing. If comfortable in their surroundings, they may lie down. Often, they'll snooze with their legs tucked and head up, so they can rise quickly. If really comfortable, they may lie flat out, belly protruding in the air. My old mare is comfortable in her surroundings, always has been. On sunny mornings, she'll stretch out and snooze. From a distance, she looks dead. When I see her like this, I check my watch, and check her again in 10 minutes. If she hasn't moved, I call her name. I go out and see if she's okay. I can't let the sleeping horse lie.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Coyotes' Call

Months go by, and then I hear them. A couple yips roll across the darkness. The song grows in volume and number as others join in and a few add howls. Farm dogs awake and bark. The sounds travel across the acres, going a mile, maybe two, before coming through the screen, into the bedroom, to me.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Fall Storage

Our farm is in storage mode. Grass has returned to high-growth mode and is strengthening its roots before the freeze. Horses and sheep munch hungrily on the rich grass, creating and storing a layer of fat. Inside the house, I cook and can tomatoes, put away potatoes, onions, veggies, for the cold months to come.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Winter Wear

My two pensioners wear parkas, my young mare, a sweatshirt.
As they've aged, my horses have grown thicker and thicker winter coats. Now in their 20s, they sport coats that are both long and thick, coats that invite me to bury my fingers in them and feel the bones, muscle and fat that lie below.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Chewbacca Ears

It is mid-September and my horses have Chewbacca ears. In another month or so, they'll be even bushier and hairier. My horses started growing their winter coats a few months ago. After the summer solstice, the daylight signals them to shed their summer coats and start growing their winter ones. They've been working at it for some time now, but have a ways to go before they're in full fluff.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Sleeping in the Tipi

In my 20s, I pitched a tent in campgrounds. In the mornings, I'd climb out of the tent and into the damp outdoors, and wave to my temporary neighbors. In my 30s, my husband and I gave up camping. At night, we fell asleep, listening to crickets outside our farmhouse window. In the mornings, I looked out onto hayfields and sometimes saw the deer or rabbit in the early morning dawn. Our nearest neighbors are a quarter-mile away. Could we get closer to nature? In my 40s, a friend invited me to spend the night in a tipi pitched in the middle of a 10-acre horse pasture. She built a fire inside the tipi and I fell asleep watching the logs burn and listening to the horses outside pull and munch grass.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A Local Meal

Last night, I picked lettuce and spinach from the garden. I tossed squash and potatoes on the grill. I unwrapped the lamb chops and grilled those too. Minutes later, my husband and I sat on the back porch, looking at the garden and the sheep grazing in a nearby pasture, and eating what the land near us had produced.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Thoughts upon a star

On cloudless mornings, the stars overwhelm me. How many are up there? Could one person ever count them? I think of city friends who, when visiting, can't stop looking at the sky. Cities' lights smudge the sky, limiting their view to just the brightest stars. I think of past people who used to navigate by the stars. Could they do it in today's lighted world?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Economics of Gardening

I choose my garden plants on a labor-reward scale. Tomatoes are high labor-high reward. During late spring and early summer, I question the pay-off as I weed around the plants and stake and re-stake them. But I love the taste of homegrown tomatoes, and nothing beats home canned tomatoes and sauces during the winter months. Zucchini is my low labor-low reward plant, as it requires little care and produces a bumper crop – more than I care to eat. Luckily, my chickens love zucchini and eagerly await the extras. This keeps me planting it year after year. Lettuce and spinach are that rare combination of low labor-high reward. They take up little room, germinate easily and grow quickly. Because I plant them in the early spring and late summer, they are the first crops of spring and the last of fall.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Language of Horse

I look at the dressage pony and see: A universal remote control with more buttons than I can count An operating manual the size of a dictionary I am taking riding lessons on a pony who is the most-trained equine I’ve ridden. I’m learning that push-button does not mean easy. It means I'll be spending much time discovering where his buttons are and what they do.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Discoveries while Mowing

When mowing, I watch for the Frisbee and tennis balls that the dogs left, the praying mantis and toads that are escaping the steel blades, the trees still so small I can step over them, the droppings the horse deposited while grazing in the yard.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Egg Laying

A friend recently asked if I had ever seen a hen lay an egg. "Not since childhood," I told her. As a child, I'd spent minutes, maybe hours, watching the hens and waiting for that moment when one laid an egg. The cluck and standing into a crouching position told me the time was near. I'd watch the fuzzy vent feathers part and the wet egg emerge. Those feathered birds awed me and I examined all parts of them -- from the tufts on their ears, to their eyelids, their scaly feet, and wing feathers. I wanted to figure out how they worked -- how they were different from me. Those childhood lessons from the farm and nature are more vivid than any I have from the school classroom.

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Swallows' Winter Home

It'll take several weeks for those swallows to make the 12,000-mile-plus trip to South America, their winter home. Will they be welcomed when they arrive? And will people delight when they make nests in their barns, on their homes? Will they be thankful when the birds eat insects? And will they, too, miss them when they migrate north?

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Symphony Goes Silent

I don’t notice when they arrive. Only when they leave. In spring and summer, the barn swallows make our homes theirs, building nests on the barn and house’s second story window ledges. As the summer wears on, their numbers multiply and we get used to the birds swooping by the windows to their nests, to the droppings that pile on the downspouts and ground below. The cat ignores the swallows’ dives, and I come to expect the birds flying behind the tractor as I mow, kicking up insects – a moveable feast. Then, on the last day of August, they leave on their migration to South America. I am struck by the silence and stillness.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Butterflies, Bluebirds and Decoy Ducks

Sometimes you have to shrug off the workload and responsibilities, and heed the call of a perfect day -- a day when the sun is bright enough to warm your cheeks, and the air crisp enough to cool them.
I took the three Border collies on a hike, and delighted as they chased yellow butterflies and pounced field mice.
As bluebirds fluttered in my path, I wondered which was bluer – them or the sky.
And when the pup spotted the decoy ducks, discovered the pond water gets deeper, and paddled to shore, we laughed and joined in as she ran through and rolled in the grass, on this September afternoon.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Horses and Writing

Shoveling manure from horse stalls gives me time daily to: Develop story ideas Edit Consider characters Plan my day Try conversations Think.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Catchability

A listing of the animals on the farm, from easiest to hardest to catch. [Composed while trying to move the ram lambs to a new pasture]
Dogs Horses Cats Chickens Mature Ewes Ewe lambs Ram lambs The llama

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Sizing Up

How fast does a dog decide if another is friend or foe, playmate or just-another-pack member? In seconds. When Lucy, the foster puppy arrived, she looked at my male Border Collie, and said, "Oh, I'll have someone to keep me company." When she saw my female Border Collie, her ears perked. "Oh, I have a new best friend."

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Science behind the Eggs

Turns out that eggs from free-range chickens that eat a varied diet not only look different than their factory-farmed sisters; they also have different nutritional values. Tests show those free-range eggs have more Vitamin E, folic acid, beta carotene, Omega-3s -- and less cholesterol.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Dandelion Experiment

When I cracked the egg and let it fall in the skillet, I started. Instead of the vibrant orange-yellow yolks of summer, I found a yolk that was fading with the warm weather. I went to hen yard. "Eat your vegetables," I scolded the birds. The hens gave me their tilted-head, one-eyed stares. Looking around their hen yard, I noticed sparse, browning grass. They didn't have any vegetables. I grabbed a bucket, went to a nearby field and plucked dandelion greens, one of the few greens still found in late fall. The chickens ate them with delight, and in the coming weeks, the yolks returned to the vibrant color of summer.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

What Hens Eat

What our free-range hens eat: Melon rinds Lettuce Cucumbers Pumpkins Moths Zucchini Earthworms Tomato worms Dandelions and other weeds Clover Insects Tomatoes Apples and pear cores Potato and carrot peelings Scratch grain Laying mash (ground grains like corn, oats, wheat, and other supplements) What most American laying hens eat: Laying mash (ground corn, oats, wheat, and other grains)

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The diet difference

When I made a lemon meringue pie, I smiled at the recipe’s ingredients. Yellow food coloring (optional). Now why would I add color to the lemon filling? No artificial color could top the rich deep yellow-orange of my filling. My secret? The eggs. I use eggs from our free-range chickens. The eggs – with their bright yellow-orange yolks – look nothing like factory-farmed eggs that have pale yellow yolks. The color difference has nothing to do with the chicken breed, egg shell color, or stress levels, and everything to do with the hens’ diets.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Tag's Facial

Sometimes the time it takes to realize something bad is happening, process it, call out a command, have the dog hear it, process it, and react is just too long. I saw the dogs key in on something in the waterway. They're always popping up rabbits, groundhogs, raccoons, deer and mice. But by the time I realize that Tag was chasing a black and white critter, it was too late. Poor Tag does not realize why I don't welcome his cuddles and loving this week.

Monday, August 24, 2009

New Additions on the Farm

The foster dog has a name – Lucy!
She’s named after the main character in my novel. Hopefully it will remind me to keep writing. But if my main character starts chewing socks and barking in the middle of the night, I might have to reconsider the dog name.
Meet our new ram lamb!
He’s four months old and just thinking about puberty. I don’t know if 20 ewes staring at him will hasten or delay it. Around Thanksgiving time, he will be turned out with the ewes for breeding season.
When it comes to selecting livestock for breeding, I like to look at the whole package – conformation, mothering ability, temperament, and so on. Some say that temperament shouldn’t matter for livestock – but it matters to me. I want this to be an enjoyable experience. I usually don’t let color play too much into my decision. But this time I made an exception. Katahdins can come in a variety of colors – though most are white or white with freckles. When given the choice of several nice ram lambs, I chose the one with color.
In the meantime, he needs a name – other than Hottie or Handsome.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Chicken Catching: Part 3

My husband was skeptical when the $10.99 chicken hook arrived. I’ll admit, it was low-tech – a four-foot think metal rod with a wooden handle on one end and a curved j-hook on the other. But it quickly fell into the Top Ten Essential Farm Implements category. When we needed to catch a chicken during daylight hours, we only had to use the hook to grab a chicken by the leg. No more chasing, cornering, and flapping wings.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Catching Chickens: Part 2

How hard can it be to catch an eight-pound bird that's not a particularly gifted flyer? In our early years of chicken rearing, my husband and I tried herding the chickens into a corner then grabbing one. Chickens flapped and climbed the fence. They darted between our legs. Feathers and tempers flew. Then we got smart. At night, chickens go into the hen house to roost. It's quite easy to sneak in, grab one from the roost and tiptoe outside again. It's so much less stressful for both humans and hens. But sometimes, we couldn't wait for nighttime to catch the bird. Sometimes a hen escaped into the yard or garden. Leaving her there might endanger herself -- or worse yet, my garden. In our third year of chicken-rearing, we discovered the solution: a chicken hook.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Catching Chickens: Part I

When children visit the farm, a few want to catch a chicken. We shake our heads as they zig and zag through the yard and pastures trying to catch a free-range bird. The hens squawk and flap their wings and always stay several steps ahead of the children. In all of our years of chicken keeping, a child has not caught a chicken.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Essential Equipment

Shortly after buying horses, we were looking for a way to haul them places. "Buy a livestock trailer instead of a horse trailer," a farmer and horse friend suggested. "They don't mind riding in one -- and you can use it for so much more." That was 10 years ago. And it was one of the best buys on the farm. While not as nice looking as a horse trailer, it was cheaper, and no horse has refused to go in it. Over the years, we've hauled: A motorcycle Gates A lawn mower Furniture A llama Firewood Sheep Fencing and building supplies and horses.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Life without Air Conditioning

I say that I don’t care for air conditioning. That I hate the feeling of being sealed into a house, unable to hear the crickets, the rooster crows. That air conditioning makes it so much harder to go outside to feed the animals, to work in the garden. Without air conditioning, I let the weather dictate the day. I rise early and work outside until the heat forces me indoors to the shade. When the heat and humidity is stifling, I take naps in the afternoon. In the evenings I return to working before falling into bed exhausted. Our farmhouse was built before air conditioning. It allows the breeze to come through the house, for air to flow. On most days, I can keep it cool by opening the windows at night and closing them and the shades during the day. Ceiling fans keep the air moving. Life without air conditioning is quite tolerable, I say. Until those few weeks of summer hit, when temperatures hit the 90s during the days and refuse to fall below 70 at night. On those days, I can’t cool the house, and I imagine life with air conditioning.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Foster Dog Needs a Name!

Meet our newest foster dog! She's about 5-6 months old. She visited us for a few days before going to have her vet work done. After she's spayed, vaccinated, and had her rear double dew claws removed, she'll return to the farm. In the meantime, she needs a name other than "Puppy." Naming foster dogs becomes tougher the more and more I do rescue. We try not to have repeat names... and the organization I work with has had hundreds of dogs go through the program. A little more about this pup... She loves to chase butterflies and cuddle. She's a curious girl, as most pups are. She can be quite brave and stand up to the rooster... as long as he's on the other side of the fence. She's going to be a petite girl -- probably no more than 35 pounds tops. She has that Border Collie tail, but she's mixed with something else. We're not sure what.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Meteor Showers

I walk in darkness along the gravel driveway. It’s that predawn hour when the critters of the night have gone to bed, and the critters of the day have yet to awake. Silence engulfs me as I take in the stars above, to the sides, in front of me. In my peripheral vision, I catch a star slip silently from the sky. There is no warning of its fall, and no boom or crackle announcing it. Just silence. Moments later, I see another, and another. This light show beats any fireworks display I’ve seen.

Friday, August 14, 2009

What I Don't Say in a Job Interview...

Hire me because I can walk among a flock of sheep and instantly notice the one who is lame, has diarrhea, is lethargic. I know how to check a horse’s vital signs. I can make a dog bark – and shut up. I know the difference between alfalfa, timothy and orchardgrass. I ’ve sheared a llama, trimmed sheep's hooves and assisted in birthing lambs. I know the correct temperature and humidity levels to incubate chicken eggs. Cleaning manure from stalls does not freak me out.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Saying Good-Bye

Jack died earlier this month. Without him, The house is quieter Cleaner Lonelier As time goes on, Thoughts of him bring smiles.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Seize the Day

I called him Jack. So many visitors called the Border collie "Poor Jack." Jack had a tough life. He came from a shelter full of buckshot and worms. A few years after we adopted him, he developed cataracts. But he never thought of himself as Poor Jack. He delighted in being groomed, having his ears rubbed and his butt scratched, eating green beans, herding his green ball, going for a hike. On sunny days, he loved to bury his head in the grass, somersault onto his back, stick all four feet in the air, and scratch his back. He appreciated life, and reminded me to take joy in it every day.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

What a Sensitive Dog Teaches: Part 2

How I saw training the weave poles: With treat in hand, I give the hand signals. Jack enters the weave poles. Half way through he misses one. I sigh. He looks and me, sulks off and hides under a chair. How Jack saw training on weave poles: Hand signal says to enter the weave poles. Was that a slight twitch of the leg? Surely she wants me to follow. Why is she yelling at me? I give up. I’d better hide before it escalates. Jack taught me the power of body language. Jack taught me that with some dogs, a sigh is a slap. Jack taught me to reward positive behaviors, and to use corrections with care.

Monday, August 10, 2009

What a Sensitve Dog Teaches: Part I

Get shot and you become hyper-sensitive to gunshots. When Jack heard gunshots roll across the cornfields, he put his head down and trotted in the other direction until he found a bunker – a fence row, a building, someplace – where he could hide. No amounts of shouting, cajoling, happy voices, commands, could stop him. I became hyper-sensitive to gunshots. Did everyone in a two-mile radius own guns? I walked him on leash. I continued loving him. And, I discovered something about him and me. When the shots barked in the distance, he looked at me for my reaction. If I didn’t react, he resumed walking. If I flinched, if I told him it was okay, he pulled on the leash, trying to escape, to find a safe zone. I learned to become the confident leader, and over time, he gained more confidence in himself.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Cruelty and Forgiveness

When Jack arrived, we learned quickly he was a sensitive soul. Gunshots and thunderstorms sent the Border collie into hiding. His X-rays showed the source of his fears. Sometime in his past, someone had shot him multiple times. Every limb of his body, his head, his core, carried buckshot – a reminder of how cruel people can be. Yet, he was willing to try loving again. That cruel treatment didn’t alter his goodness toward people, his willingness to try and please them.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

What Animals Teach

Working with animals humbles me. When I begin to think I’ve mastered handling sheep, training a dog, working with horses, one of them is sure to step in and remind me that I have much more to learn. Jack did that. After training our first Border Collie to run agility, I considered myself knowledgeable about the dogs and the breed. We adopted Jack, a Border collie, from Buckeye Border Collie Rescue, and he began teaching me.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The B-52s Arrive

The horseflies arrive in early August. I call them B-52s. They are large, loud and lumbering. They laugh at insect repellent. Their bite leaves a golf ball sized lump. Horses, humans and sheep fear them. Chickens do not. One Buckeye hen spots a horsefly and gives chase, waddling after it as it circles around the ewes’ watering trough. The horsefly cannot ascend fast enough to escape the chicken’s beak.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Nighttime on the Farm

I am a morning person. I seldom am outside for hard dark in early August. But chores go into the night, and I notice the lights over the bean field. The fireflies rise above the plants, their blinking lights blanketing the air. When I look at the field in the following morning's early dawn, the fireflies and their lights are gone, replaced by the hovering fog.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Garden: Tomato Dawn

The first ripe tomatoes never make it out of the garden. I pluck them from the vine, wipe them off, and pop their warm, sweetness into my mouth. As I celebrate the start of tomato season, I try not to think of its violent end, when, tired of tomatoes, I throw the orbs into the chicken yard, and then finally, yank up the plants and throw them on the burn pile. That time seems so far away.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Farm Friends

If you move to a farm, it’s best to seek out a few human farm friends – those people who can commiserate about frozen pipes in the winter, ignore the muddy paw prints of spring, and will celebrate when you find a piece of rusty sheep handling equipment. This week we brought home a used sheep tilt-table. When the sheep walk into it, the metal contraption squeezes them so they can't move forward, backward or sideways. A still sheep is easier to vaccinate and deworm. Once squeezed in place, the handler also can tilt the sheep on its side, making the twice-a-year hoof-trimming ritual easier. A sheep-owning friend is in awe. "I want one," she says.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Trade-Off

Five-and-a-half inches of rain and cool weather in July mean green pastures and plenty of forage for the sheep and horses. I no longer must carry hay to them. Their water consumption drops because they get some water from the grass and need less to stay cool. I am spending less time on chores. I’m spending that extra time on mowing the grass in the yard and weeding the garden, as rain and cool temperatures makes the yard grass and weeds grow.

Friday, July 31, 2009

How Sheep View the World

Sheep recognize faces. Mine see me as a flake of hay. They bleat pitifully when I step into the barn. If they could, I'm sure they'd cup empty bowls in their hooves and stretch them toward me. When I walk by, they follow, hoping I’ll morph into a pile of hay.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

My Bottle Lamb

My trips to the barn often include stopping and picking up some loose hay. I offer it to the pink nose that pokes between the sheep pen’s slats. Ewe Lamb 05 was a triplet, rejected by her mother. For 45 days, I gave her bottle after bottle of formula. The last bottle was weeks ago. Yet she still likes the hand feeding, still appreciates the human giving her some leaves of alfalfa hay.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Weaning Time

The ram lambs’ cries settle like a somber fog over the farm. They aren’t frantic, joyous, or demanding. They’re just sad. We separated them from their mothers. They are four months old and almost as tall as their mothers. They’re quite capable of surviving on their own. Yet they still like to get on their knees and contort their heads to nurse. They still want to lie next to their mothers and chew their cuds. They still run to their moms for comfort. They still cry when they can't be near them.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Planting the Fall Garden

Today I planted seeds of optimism. It is July, the sun is hot. I am sowing lettuce, spinach and beet seeds into the warm ground. I am hopeful the plants will survive the bugs and hot weather of August, and that by mid-September they will thrive in the cooler weather of fall.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

J.G.: Part 9 -- Farewell

J.G. eventually moved back to the hen house. Apparently hens respect their elders and welcomed her into the flock. Her ventures over the fence and around the farm became less frequent. Earlier this summer, I noticed she was moving slower. A few weeks later, she died in her nest. Compared to her life, her death was uneventful. I imagine that someday we'll have a rogue hen that sets up house in our barn, and I'll find her antics amusing, and I may even band her and save her from slaughter. But she'll never be a J.G. The critters on the farm have changed. I, too, have changed. I've come to accept that some things, like rogue hens, I can't control.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

J.G.: Part 8-Establishing a Home

Once her chicks grew feathers, J.G. was done with motherhood. She wasn’t done living in the goat stall, nor entertaining me. During the winter months, she flew onto Jake’s back and perched. When we bought sheep and moved them to the barn, she did the same with them. The seven-pound hen pecked the cat who once made the mistake of trying to pounce her. She squawked at the Border collies to remind them that she was not to be herded. I only smiled and shook my head at the hen who ruled the farm.

Friday, July 24, 2009

J.G.: Part 7 -- Mother on a Mission

Move to a farm and your sense of order relaxes. Just like I couldn’t keep J.G. confined to the chicken yard, I couldn’t keep J.G. and her chicks in the goat paddock. Once hatched, the chicks were ready to explore the world. J.G. tagged after them, showing how to scratch for bits of grain, how to catch bugs, how to drink. J.G. and her chicks showed up everywhere – in the horse stalls, under the pine trees in the front yard, in the adjacent bean field, on the back yard. I gave up trying to corral them back to the goat paddock and learned to delight in the surprise sightings.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

J.G.: Part 6 -- Chicks

I make feeding J.G. part of the morning routine. While mammals gain weight during pregnancy, hens lose weight when sitting on eggs. A broody hen only gets up from the nest for a few minutes daily. In that time, she must find food and water. I make her job easier by placing water nearby and spreading bits of grain. By Day 18, J.G. refuses to leave the nest. Does she hear chicks cheeping inside the eggs? On Day 20, I see a yellow head peek out from her feathers. She still sits. On Day 22, she gets up from her nest. Five chicks follow her.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

J.G.: Part 5-Starting a Family

While Jake the Goat was thinking friendship, J.G. the Hen was thinking motherhood. After moving into the goat stall, she built a nest underneath the goat’s hay feeder in the stall corner and sat on a clutch of eggs. So intent was she on her nest that she ignored the hay that fell from the feeder. Twice a day, I went into the stall and removed the hay that covered her. Every day, I looked at the calendar to see how many more days it would be before the eggs hatched.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

J.G.: Part 4 -- The Lonely Hearts

It seemed fitting that J.G. chose the goat’s stall. After his buddy, Tanner the Goat, died, I moved Jake to the horses' pasture and stalls. My mare didn't care for his antics and bit and chased him. So Jake moved back to the goat area to live alone. J.G. didn't fare much better with the hens. When they picked on her, she flew from the chicken yard and ventured around the farm. Though they seemed an odd couple -- one had feathers, the other fur; one weighed seven pounds, the other 170 -- they seemed to like each other.

Monday, July 20, 2009

J.G.: Part 3 -- A New Name

The #53 Hen grew tired of the garden after a few days. On her ventures around the farm, she discovered a better place: the goat paddock and stall. It provided bits of spilled grain, shelter, plenty of manure to scratch, and, best of all, a goat friend named Jake. Within weeks, she’d made a nest underneath the goat’s hay feeder. “Jake has a girlfriend,” my husband announced one night when he returned from evening chores. The name Jake’s Girlfriend was shortened to J.G., and the hen was no longer called #53.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

J.G.: Part 2 -- Wing Clipping

After buying more vegetable plants and sticking them into the ground, I looked for ways to keep the #53 Hen out of my garden. I had three options: build a taller fence, keep #53 Hen in a secure building, or clip the hen's wings. I opted for wing clipping. Cutting the wing feathers on one side makes the hen unbalanced when she attempts to fly. Armed with an illustrated guide to clipping wings, a pair of scissors, and a patient husband who agreed to hold the bird, I went about cutting the wing feathers on the hen's left side. A few hours later, I watched as she attempted to fly over the fence. After several attempts, she lifted herself a few feet in the air, grabbed the fence with her feet, and proceeded to climb over the fence and into the garden.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

J.G.: Part I -- Eating the Garden

J.G. distinguished herself by flying over the chicken yard fence and into my recently planted garden. Once there, the Buckeye hen uprooted the tags identifying my plants and munched the leaves on the young squash, melon and cucumber plants. I squawked, scooped up the young hen and threw her back into the chicken yard. She squawked, ruffled her feathers, and flew back into the garden. The year was 2006, and she hadn’t earned the name J.G. She was just That Damn #53 Hen, identifiable only by her green, numbered leg band.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Farmhouse: The Dogs

Some locals look with wonder as one Border Collie, then another and another bounce from the house. “You allow dogs in the house?” they ask. “I don’t have white carpet and lace curtains,” I respond.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Farmhouse: White Carpet

The white carpet pictured in that photo is gone. While a mother with five children may have kept it clean, a couple with a couple of dogs and cats could not. I tried to shampoo the soiled spots left by pets. My husband realized the futility. He pulled out his utility knife and cut the soiled spots out of the carpet. When more floorboard than carpet showed, we knew it was time to look at other flooring options.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Farmhouse: The Photo

In between the wall and baseboard, I find a photo of the home’s former occupants. Surrounding the five smiling children are lace curtains and white carpet. Was their mother optimistic or hopeful? Were the white rooms her refuge from the mud, manure, hay chaff, and grime waiting outside her door?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Farmhouse: Part 2

I sometimes marvel at our house’s adaptability. Over its lifetime, it’s expanded twice to accommodate its occupants; and shrunk once, to suit us. It’s stoically stood as humans injected ductwork and electrical wires into its walls, added and removed flooring, papered and painted its walls. It never protested when its occupants added and closed in doors, removed and expanded porches, changed walls and added closets, given its rooms ever-changing purposes.

Monday, July 13, 2009

A Farmhouse Looks at 100

Our farmhouse turned 100 years old recently. Like any centurion, it’s had repairs and surgeries to its plumbing and electrical systems, its leaks and creaks. It's seen many people come and go. It holds so many stories of those who have sought its shelter.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Summer Mornings: Rhythms

Live on a farm long enough and you’ll discover the rhythms of the day. Early mornings are for eating. In the early dawn hours, the animals and fowl scavenge and graze, filling their bellies before returning to the barns and henhouse where they bask in the rising sun. The sheep chew cuds, while the horses lie, stretching, their bellies protruding into the air. And the people rush from meeting to meeting, answer phones and emails, and make sure not a minute is wasted.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Summer Mornings: The Rooster Crow

Summer mornings find me on the back porch. Reading the newspaper. Listening to the birds. Watching the chickens, sheep and horses forage. Supervising the Border collies’ chase and wrestle games. When the phone rings, I think nothing of answering it. And the rooster thinks nothing of belting out his morning song. It’s a song that carries across phone lines and miles and miles away, a song that begs comment from people on the other end of the line, and a song that reminds me I’m home.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Summer Mornings: The Cockerel's Song

I do morning chores to the rooster's song. My nine-pound bird belts a tune as bold as his iridescent auburn and black feathers. But on this summer morning, the response to his crows make me smile. It's a two-syllable tune that ends with a croak. My teenage cockerels are attempting to crow. For the next month, I will hear their songs stretch from two to three syllables, until one day, they find their voice and I hear a chorus of rooster crows.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Adventuring into a Foreign Environment

Imagine dropping a group of New York City teen-agers into an Ohio cornfield. I suppose that’s how my young Buckeyes feel when I let them outdoors. They’ve never felt grass, seen a sky that’s miles away, roamed a room without walls. From their pasture they see sheep, a llama, people, hens, cats and dogs. Above them fly swallows and hawks. Instinct takes over. Buckeyes were bred to roam the pastures, foraging for seeds, grass and bugs. Their chicken brains are programmed to do this. They adapt to the outdoor life within hours. By Day 2 of pasture, they are clamoring for me to open the chicken hutch door and let them explore the world.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Teen Chicks Venture Out

Chicks hatched by hens learn to scratch and roam the world by Day 2. Chicks hatched by the incubator learn sometime in Month 3. That’s when they’re big enough to defend themselves from cats, and when the hawks no longer think they’d make an easy entrĂ©e. Until then, the young birds live inside the coop, only viewing the outside world through the chicken wire.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Summer Mornings: The Balloon

Horses and sheep are prey animals – always on the lookout for the mountain lion in the bushes, the wolf prowling the fence line. So when a white helium balloon drifts near the far pasture, all grazing stops. The animals refuse to go near the bobbing balloon. I can’t fight the generations of memory. If I want them to graze the far pastures, I must remove the helium predator.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Summer Mornings

My old mare whickers when I turn on the lights. Her call drifts across the backyard and through the window screens. The rooster joins her in song. The ewes, who learned a long time ago to associate humans with food, add their baas. A Border collie whines and dances on the wood floor, clacking a cadence that goes faster and faster. On the back porch, the barn cats yowl, demanding their breakfast. And so begins the morning routine: walk the dogs, give hay and water to the rams and sheep hay, feed the horses, move the portable rooster coop, toss the rooster scratch grain, carry fresh water and grain to two hen houses, set out food for the cats, feed the dogs – stirring in canned food for the senior Border collie.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Administering Shots: Part 2

When I was 20 and working in a horse barn, a much-wiser 20-year-old co-worker told that humans are capable of so much more than they think they are. When I was 30 and working at a newspaper, a co-worker told me his wife, who is a doctor, hated needles – but still completed med school and was now practicing. Surely, I could get over this needle phobia. The sheep vaccines are given subcutaneously – or just under the skin. The technique requires grabbing a fold of skin behind the sheep’s elbow and injecting the vaccine under the skin. Care must be taken that it goes under the skin – not between the layers – and that the needle doesn’t poke through the two folds of skin. I’d focus on the technique. I could do this, I told myself.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Administering Shots

I’m needle phobic. In four decades, I’ve never seen a needle penetrate my skin. During blood tests, shots, vaccines, I look away – and sometimes hum. I don’t like to watch when the vet vaccinates the horses and dogs. So, how then, could I possibly give shots to sheep? I certainly couldn’t close my eyes and hope the needle found its mark.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Pharmacy

Open my fridge, and there, between the yeast and horseradish, sits bottles of medications: to kill pain, to reduce fever, to induce labor, to immunize against tetanus, to fight infections. Since acquiring sheep, my animal pharmacy has grown. Profit margins on sheep are slim, and several vet visits can wipe away the small farmer’s profit. When we purchased sheep, we knew we’d have to handle routine vaccinations, deworming, basic first aid.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Farm Rules

I work to keep the chickens in, and the starlings out. I provide bedding and shelter for sheep and horses, and shoo away the coons and possums. The cat may eat rats and mice and sparrows, but must leave the barn swallows and blue birds alone. The dogs may chase squirrels and stray cats, but not the barn cats or chickens. I may come to accept that some things I cannot control.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Llama Shearing: The Deed

Sedated llamas don’t look peaceful. They look dead. When I don’t see the rise and fall of Llambert’s abdomen, I put my ear to his nose and hear his nasally breath. Reassured that he’s alive – no need to shear a dead llama – I grab the shears. With gloved hands, I grab a clump of hair. It’s about eight inches long and holds bits of manure, dirt and straw. Placing the shears at the base of the hair, near Llambert’s skin, I clip. The clump separates from his body. I toss it aside, grab and clip another clump. Soon, I’m into a rhythm. Grab and clip. Grab and clip. Around me lie clumps of brown. I view my work. He looks like a kindergartener with school scissors trimmed him. The cut is uneven. Should I try to straighten it? I look at my watch. Forty minutes are passed. The vet says the sedative lasts about an hour. I’ve only clipped one side. The sheep won’t care what he looks like, I reason. When Llambert awakes, I’ve removed most of the long hairs. Several feathery wisps remain on his hindquarters. I try to clip those and he kicks. They give him an edgy look, I conclude as I remove his halter and let him to return to his sheep.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Llama Shearing: The Solution

When the vet arrives for his spring visit, I hand him a to-do list. Vaccinate horses. Blood test for my show mare. Float teeth. Check lameness in my old mare. Answer questions about sheep vaccinations and deworming. Vaccinate and deworm llama. Trim llama’s nails. He grimaces when he gets to the bottom of the list. “We’ll sedate him for that,” he says. The vet injects a sedative into Llambert’s hindquarter, and then we sit on a bale of hay, watching and waiting. Llambert’s eyelids get heavy. His head droops. He drops to the ground and lies in the straw. The vet grabs his trimmers, steps into the stall and trims Llambert’s nails. “If you’re planning on shearing him, you might want to do it now,” the vet says.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Llama Shearing: The Tools

When I look at Llambert the Llama, I see sections. I’ve calculated how much hair I can clip with scissors before my hand protests. Night one, I can clip the shoulder. Night two, the other one. Night three, the neck. It will be fall before I’m finished. Surely there has to be a better way. I consult my farm supply catalog. Heavy-duty clippers with 170 watts of power are $359. English-type shears powered by the human hand are $14.95. I order the hand shears and shudder when they arrive. The six-inch blades close when I squeeze the handles and spring open when I release. They make hedge clippers look like children’s safety scissors.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Llama Shearing

I finished writing my novel and sheared a llama on the same day. The llama shearing seemed the greater accomplishment. Llambert the Llama is not a friendly creature. He resists being caught; he kicks when handled; and he’s the hairiest beast on the farm. Unlike every other creature we own, he does not shed come springtime. The arrival of spring brought the question, how does one shear a llama? Most pros use industrial clippers to remove the pounds of fiber. I, though, didn’t want to invest a few hundred dollars in clippers. Would scissors work? Where would I start? How could I get him to stand still? Did I risk getting spit upon? I spent many evenings in the barn, staring at Llambert, contemplating his future haircut.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Silent Night

At the butchers, a young man asks if I want to stay while they kill the roosters. I say I have to run errands. I always say that. I can’t imagine sitting in the parking lot, waiting for the birds to be killed, plucked, put on ice. When I return a few hours later, my roosters’ carcasses are on ice. The snow is still falling. Butchering is continuing. I hear the squawk of birds and smell the blood. Will I ever get used to the smell? I feel light-headed. The young man motions that it will be a few minutes. I retreat to the storefront and wait. Inside I hear the sound of a solo flute. Stepping around the corner, I see a woman standing and staring at sheet music lying on the floor. In her hands, she holds a flute. Outside the snow falls. Squawks come from the butchering floor. And she practices “Silent Night.”

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Rooster Mobile

The throaty song made me reach for the volume button. But the noise wasn’t coming from the car radio. The car’s engine and movement apparently awoke one of the five roosters in the back seat. I stared at his reflection in the rearview mirror. How had my life come to this? It was 7 in the morning on December 21 and I was driving to the butchers in heavy snow. Five Buckeye roosters were stirring in the back seat of my Honda Civic. I didn’t feel like a farmer, but I also didn't feel like the political science major who'd graduated summa cum laude so many years ago.