Monday, December 26, 2016

Simple gifts

We are spending a quiet Christmas at the farm this year - just Dave and I, his Mom, Newton the dog, Oolong and BC the cats, thirty eight sheep, one alpaca, and six chickens.

We give the gifts of corn and hay to the sheep and alpaca, cat food and dog food to the cats and dog, and chicken laying mix to the chickens. The sheep will soon gift us with their fleeces and their babies. The cats and dog share our lives on a more intimate basis. Oolong spreads herself in front of the wood stove and decorates the living room with her elegance. BC and Newton vie for floor space within stroking distance of either Dave or me.The chickens gift us with three eggs nearly every day. I love reaching into their nest box to find the smooth, brown ovals, cool to the touch and beautiful within. The egg yolks are firm and dark yellow, almost orange, with a wonderful flavor.

It has been raining most of the day. A thin crust of ice coats the snow drifts. As I write, the lights flicker once, twice, and go out. Probably ice on the electric lines. I find the candles and light them. Dave cleans the chimneys on the kerosene lamps and sets one beside each of us. Grandma Alice continues her crocheting. She knows the pattern so well that it doesn't matter that she can barely see.

The wood stove keeps us warm; we have ten cords of wood in the back yard. We have water stored in the basement. I'll cook our sweet potato casserole in a cast iron fry pan on the wood stove and ham slices on a griddle on the wood stove. After Christmas dinner, Grandma Alice and I will sing along as Dave plays  carols on his fiddle. We have no internet access, no radio, no TV. It doesn't matter. We have warmth and food and family - simple gifts.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The fox and the chickens

I enjoy having chickens around. They are industrious, not bothered by much, colorful, funny, and they lay eggs. Pretty good for something that costs less than $5 at Farm and Fleet in the spring.
We've had chicken off and on for years, but rather more off than on until lately. Several years ago, we delivered two lambs to a friend and came home with half a dozen chickens.

They were fine for a week or two, and then over a three day period, they all disappeared. Something had discovered them.

Dave  built  a chicken vault,  a wonderful coop, in the barn with corrugated steel on the bottom three feet, and hog panels on up to the ceiling. As I was filling the feeder, our barn cat jumped to the top of the corrugated metal wall and wove his way back and forth through the spaces on the hog panels. Obviously, hog panels weren't secure enough to keep the cat out.  I shooed him away and laced chicken wire to the hog panels.

The next morning, half  the chickens were gone. I searched for openings and tightened up a couple of spaces between wall and wire that might have been the problem. The next morning the rest were dead. Dave found one body stuck in the barnyard fence, but the rest had disappeared.

That night Dave set a trap. He put the dead chicken back into the coop and at dusk, he hid in the barn with his rifle hoping to catch the culprit in that act. It wasn't until full dark that he identified a soft , persistent background noise as chewing. "It must be out on the compost pile," he thought. Dave walked silently to the barn door and stood there, watching and listening. No, the sound came from above him. Dave pulled the door shut and a racoon fell to the ground in a litter of chicken bones, dashed across the barnyard , through the fence and up a tree.

Completely disheartened, I emptied the feeder and waterer. Dave filled the hole in the base of the racoon tree with chicken wire to discourage the coons. We gave up on chickens for the year.

In the spring we ordered an automatic chicken door and Dave installed it. Our grandson Jasper and I went to Farm and Fleet to buy chickens. Jasper chose two each of four varieties We released them into the coop with a brooder lamp to keep them warm. The chicks prospered until I began thinking that they were just about big enough to lay eggs. The next morning, half the chickens were gone. We checked the chicken door. It closed at dusk and opened at dawn. It should be working. The next morning, the rest of the chickens were gone. Obviously, whoever was eating our chickens worked after dusk or before dawn. Again we gave up on chickens for the year.

 Last summer, when grandsons Kieran and Simon came to visit, we decided to try chickens one more time so that the boys would have a chance to select them and play with them while they were still cute and cuddly. We  tightened up the coop again and unplugged the door. We would manually let the chickens out when the sun was well up and put them back into the coop in late afternoon while the sun was still out. One day, we were late putting the chickens back in the coop. By the time we thought of them, there was only one hen left, cowering in a corner.The next morning, six more appeared, but the eighth one didn't ever come home.

I set six foot hog panels around the coop, sectioning off an area of the barn for chicken use only. It wasn't as fun as giving the chickens the run of the barnyard, but it was still nice to step into the barn and hear them chattering.

  A few days later while we were washing dishes, Dave said "There's a fox in the pasture." Then he threw down his dish towel. "He's got one of our chickens!" We both rushed outside. The fox disappeared through the fence, but the chicken was already dead. Her warm brown feathers moved a little in the breeze, but her neck was broken, her head limp. When we stepped into the barn, six chickens flew back into their pen. Okay, so they could fly over a six foot fence.

Dave and I stretched three lengths of the temporary electric fencing that we use for the sheep when they are grazing our hayfield around the inside of the barnyard fence. That night, Dave woke to the sound of a fox crying, little short barks that went on and on in the darkness. In the morning, the fence was pulled out of the ground and tangled. The fox must have come through the woven wire and gotten caught in the electric fence.  Two days later, the entire fence was lying on the ground or leaning against the old woven wire fence, covered in ice and snow. If the wind blew the electric fence onto the woven wire fence once it was electrified it would short out immediately. This was not a good solution either. We tied the woven wire fence to the electric fence, hoping the extra wires  would produce a more impenetrable barrier.

That was a week ago. We still have six chickens. They still fly out of their pen and roam the barnyard. Yesterday we had a blizzard, restricting the animals to the barn. The chickens will be out again as soon as the sheep walk a path into the barnyard.

Hopefully, the fox learned it's lesson. But probably not. Yesterday we found two eggs in the barn garbage can. What a thrill.  We are agreed, we really enjoy having the chickens in our life.

For the rest of this winter, we'll appreciate every egg, every encounter with the chickens for as long as they live. Next spring, as soon as the ground is thawed, we'll wrap our barnyard in fencing with smaller holes so the raccoons, the foxes and anything else that threatens the chickens can't get in. It's worth it for the fresh eggs, warm and brown, but mostly, it's worth it for the enjoyment we get from the chickens.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Not noticing much

I walk the fields every morning with our dog, Newton. BC the barn cat  follows us. Each day, I look for something new, some change. In the spring I see the first furled alfalfa leaf rising through the grasses. In summer, I watch for new flowers in the prairie. This fall I've been listening to bird calls, trying to identify them, judging which birds are moving south by the calls I hear in the air.

Every morning, I write a haiku as I walk. Haiku are a form of short Japanese poetry, generally with a natural theme. Traditional haiku are 17 syllables long, set out in three lines of 5 syllables, 7 syllables and 5 syllables.  Seventeen syllables of noticing the world.

This morning Newton and I heard gunshots in the distance as we walked up the driveway. It's deer hunting season and the shots mean we have hunters beyond the edges of our property. I won't risk taking a deer colored dog further than  our driveway. He'll get the rest of his outdoor time sitting with BC on the deck.

Then I began to worry. Would a hunter see just a glimpse of Newton and not notice the human walking behind him on our driveway and shoot thinking he'd seen a deer?

What would I do if Newton got shot? Would it be better to shout and scream so the hunter knows I'm there? Or to rush silently back to the house and call 911 to report a hunter shooting across our property without our permission so that the police could arrest him? Should I pick the dog up and carry him down to Dave in case he's dying (as if I could carry a 100 pound dog) or should I just shout for Dave and hope he hears me above NPR?

A car was parked across the road from the top of our driveway. A hunter in the neighbor's woods.
What if the shot came from that direction? If I ran down the driveway after the shot, I could tell the police all about the car.

Wait a minute, what could I tell the police? The car was white, no, silver. Maybe it was a light gray. Do they make light gray cars? It looked like a station wagon from behind, but hardly anybody has station wagons anymore, so with no other cars to judge size by, it was probably something bigger. I think I made out  the letters KIA on the back of the car.

Newton BC, and I turned around and headed back down the driveway. If Newton got shot from behind on our way down the drive, I could tell the police that I saw a white, silver, or gray car that might have been a KIA and might have been bigger than a station wagon, but with the same kind of square shape, with Minnesota plates of which I could read none of the numbers or letters without going a lot closer. I wasn't getting any closer.

In the mystery novels I enjoy, someone always gets the color, make, and license plate number of a car speeding away from them. I obviously would be a useless witness if a crime was committed with a car. No crime was committed at all while Newton and I returned to the house, but I edited and tuned my story all the way down the drive just in case. Back at the house I sat down to write my haiku and realized that I had spent the entire walk inside my head, not even really seeing the car which was the one thing I had actually noticed.

I walk this beautiful world
not noticing much

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

For hope there must be imagination

photo by Amber Walker

There must be imagination...

 “I hope we find some bones.” (They did.)
“I hope we can dig this tree out of the ground.” (They did!)
“I hope we can find our way back to the house.” (They did.)

We have spent the summer playing with grandsons and we have had such a good time. Six years old, five and three, they play with chickens and lambs, cats and dog.  They run the fields, explore the woods. They build forts in the pasture from old branches. They do archeological digs where ever they find a piece of metal. They excavate rocks from the driveway using the hose and shovels. They strap on backpacks and take their lunches on adventures.
In addition to a week at the farm, their great grandma took them to see Pinocchio at the Children’s Theater, a version of Pinocchio that required a lot of imagination. The actors were all dressed as house painters, their scenery hung from construction scaffolds. The boys were entranced.  After the play we all went out for dessert.

“I hope we get ice cream.” (They did.) 

Across the street from the ice cream shop, was this wonderful piece of graffiti. For hope, there must be imagination.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Bridge to joy

My husband Dave built me a bridge for our anniversary, a simple hump backed bridge from our east hayfield, over the drainage ditch, to our prairie. To me, it's a bridge over a stream, a bridge from work to joy.

The hayfield is definitely work. It means worry about weeds . Will the thistles overtake the alfalfa?  Is the leafy spurge taking over? Is that shepherds purse or hoary alyssum? It means worry about the weather. When is the next rain predicted? Is the alfalfa dry yet? When can we start cutting hay? It means the absolutely exhausting work of baling.
Will we have extra help? Can we do it by ourselves? When is the next rain predicted? Will the tractor keep working, the haybine, the baler?

There is joy during baling - the blooms along the edges of the field as we  roll past on the hay wagon, the swallows that follow the baler scooping up insects suddenly deprived of their cover, the joy of night fall when we can't bale any longer and we get to lie down and not move for eight hours, and the biggest joy of lifting the last bale off the last wagon load and sitting down in the alfalfa leaf dust on the wagon, sweat running down our faces, through with baling for six whole weeks.

On the other hand, the prairie is all joy. When we converted 10 acres of hayfield to prairie it meant we had ten fewer acres of hay to bale. Our friends with prairies have assured us that the few remaining thistles will eventually give up and die. And every time we walk through the prairie, we find something new. Narrow deer trails wander seemingly aimlessly. Dried purple cone flower seed heads harbor blue bodied dragonflies. Bright green yarrow leaves force their way through last years dead grasses. A bobolink balances on a dried sunflower seed head, singing its heart out.

It's not that I hate baling, it has it's moments, but when I see that simple bridge from the hayfield to the prairie, I smile.

Sunday, June 5, 2016


We took lamb number 52 to the vet. He was old enough to get his vasectomy and become a permanent part of our flock as a teaser, the ram who was responsible for getting the ewes ready to get pregnant.

Our truck had had a close encounter with a wild turkey and was in at the shop having a new windshield installed the day of 52's appointment, so we transported him in the back of the car. Specifically, we transported him on Dave's lap. Number 52 was a bottle lamb. He was easy to catch and fairly easy to hold in the back seat (at least from my point of view). He didn't complain until I took the corner at the end of our road a little too fast, and that was just a small bleat.

Every one at the veterinary office was impressed by him. They slipped a leash around his neck and he followed them happily down the hall. Three hours later, after he recovered from his anesthetic, Dave picked him up and held him in his lap again. We stopped at our friends Budd, Marguerite, and Kate's house so that he could get some head rubs and scratches. There he sampled dandelions, yard grass and a few flowers.

"What's his name?" Kate asked. "If he's a permanent part of the flock, he has to have a name."

We all looked at Budd because he knew number 52 better than any of us having spent numerous hours bottle feeding him. "George," said Budd. "He looks like a George."

One more good bye scratch and then Dave, George and I climbed back into the car. George was about to meet his destiny. We opened the gate and let him into the ram pasture. Three huge rams ambled over to sniff him. George baaad. The rams turned aside. He was no threat to them. George wandered to the fence and gazed longingly at his friends back in the lamb pasture. "Baaa." He would be back with the ewes in three short months, but for now, he was bonding with the rams, learning what it took to be a George rather than just a number.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The first flowers

When spring comes, I search for flowers. I have to look hard to find the pasque flowers in the Lake Region Electric Coop prairie. Their buds are the same pale parchment color as the dried debris of last years prairie. If the old stalks hadn't been cut and raked, I wouldn't have seen the pale purple petals just inches off the ground.

The pasque flowers aren't flashy; they don't overwhelm you with bright color or scent or their vast numbers. It's the persistence of the plant, the fact that it forces its way up through ground just barely thawed, that impresses me. Any plant that blooms while the nights still freeze regularly and the days hover around 40 degrees must be a survivor. And yet, the pasque flowers just barely survive. They don't compete well with sod forming grasses. They need prairie grasses that grow in clumps, leaving space for the prairie flowers in between. They need the prairie grasses that emerge when conditions are warmer to allow the early spring sun to reach the pasque flowers, heating their patch of soil and building sugars in their roots.

Once the prairie grasses grow, the ephemerals like pasque flowers can't compete for light and they die back, conserving their energy for next spring when the soil warms and the fragile buds push their way up into the sunlight again in a pattern that will continue as long as there are prairies.