Sunday, May 31, 2009

Pale apple blossom petals

silk against my cheek
pale apple blossom petals
adrift on the wind

Friday, May 29, 2009

So short a life

Golden yellow dandelions dot the fields on our north facing hillsides; on the south facing fields, the yellow blooms have aged to puffs of white seed heads. A good wind and millions of dandelion seeds will head off to populate other fields and lawns – bane of our neighbors.

A month ago, the dandelions were still dormant, today they are disseminating seeds. So short a life, with such a widespread effect. Of course the dandelions in our fields don’t die after they bloom and disperse, they spend the rest of the summer building a deeper and fatter root, all the better to bloom and seed even more successfully next summer.

The lambs in the field, however, do die.

Today Dave sold two lambs, to friends who will eat them. One for a first birthday celebration, and one for a high school graduation celebration. Both great reasons to have a barbeque. It’s just hard that I know the lambs who are being barbequed.

Yesterday, we corralled all the lambs in the barn. One by one, we selected the biggest lambs and weighed them. Dave picked up each lamb and slid it into a big ripstop nylon bag that I made to weigh lambs. We hung the bagged lamb from our ceiling scale. All the lambs over seventy pounds were marked with a spray of Crayola veterinary spray paint – green squiggles across their foreheads and their rumps.

When buyers come we can say “pick any lamb marked with green,” and know that they will choose a big enough lamb for them to have a good feast and for us to make a decent return on our labor.

The lambs pack so much life into three short months. They form loving bonds with their mothers or their shepherds, nurse enthusiastically, run with abandon. The bottle lambs, especially, beg for attention and food with charm and persistence. I appreciate that they gain weight more slowly than their field mates who were fed by sheep mothers because I won’t have to mourn their deaths until much later in the year.

The lambs are our responsibility – their lives, and their deaths. We try to make both as pain free as possible. Selling lambs from our farm shortens the time they are afraid before they die to a matter of minutes instead of the hours in a pickup, days on a feed lot, and a final trip to a slaughter house that our lambs used to endure. When we sell lambs on our farm, we can insure that they have a good death. If there is any such thing as a good death.

At the very least, I know that we have given our lambs a good life – even though it is so short.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Hunting for mushrooms

Friday morning, Dave and I woke early to walk our woods, looking for mushrooms. We took off striding down the driveway. “We’re supposed to be looking,” Dave said,” not racing, right?” We grinned at each other and slowed down.

I love walking the woods looking for flowers, but that’s completely different than looking for mushrooms. When searching for flowers, I walk, head bent, eyes drifting back and forth across the forest floor, alert for splashes of color. Blue – violets. Small white – wood anemone. Big white – showy trillium. Yellow – bellwort. The flowers practically jump out at me as I walk. Even the tiny greenish flowers of the early meadow rue are obvious.

Mushrooms are not obvious. I have to train my eyes to ignore the bright splashes of green, white, yellow, blue. I look for off white and dun brown in the beige and rust and brown of last summers dead leaves. I look for order, for repeated structure, for a particular visual pattern in the chaos of leaf duff stirred by passing deer and April’s winds.

We are looking for morels, that king of mushrooms in Minnesota woods. That fungus so precious that successful mushroom hunters don’t even tell friends and family where they find the tasty morsels.

The grosbeaks are singing. Pileated woodpeckers declare their territory with a hollow tattoo on a dead tree in the back yard. The crab apple buds are fat and pink in the early morning light. The woods smell green and full of life, a moist, earthy scent unique to late spring and early summer mornings.

It’s a perfect morning, but not a morning to find morels.

We spent the rest of the day in the gardens. Dave planted two patches of sweet corn and set tomato plants deep into the rich tilth of the vegetable garden while I dropped the tiny seeds of carrots, lettuce, arugula, cilantro and spinach into shallow rows scratched into the crumbly surface. The potatoes and peas are up. We protected the brassicas from slugs with plastic tubes and from vicious cabbage moths and voracious rabbits with hardware cloth cages.

My sun garden is a mess of grasses that either creep in from the edges or are carried in with the straw mulch. The stems break when I pull them and the roots resprout in a matter of days, unless I wet the garden thoroughly first. Then when I pull gently on the green blades, the root follows, inch after inch of strong white defiance. It seems like any piece of root left in the ground will create new grasses, so I feel intense satisfaction when I can pull an entire foot of grass root from my flower garden – one less plant to pull next time. The flowers are up and flourishing. I can hardly believe that only six years ago, this garden was a piece of hayfield. Now it’s home to lamia, asters, phlox, tulips and other spring bulbs, iris, columbine, day lilies, asiatics, gailardia, and my herbs – chives, peppermint, and oregano. The thyme has died again.

After supper, Dave and I left our gardens and headed for the Twin Cities. We traditionally spend Memorial weekend with our daughter Amber and her husband Jesse, painting their beautiful old house in Minneapolis. The traffic approaching us was insane, a slowly moving parking lot - car after car escaping from the big city toward the country we were leaving.

Saturday morning, Amber made a pot of tea and we took it outside with us to look at her garden. The scent of lilacs and lily of the valley hung heavy in the early morning air. The roar of jets overhead and the wail of sirens were more than a match for the enthusiastic cardinal in the walnut tree next door. We admired the irises and wild ginger in Amber’s rain garden and without any conscious thought began to pull weeds as we walked. The weeds were no different in the city than at home, but Amber had fewer than we did.

Suddenly, beside the dandelion I was pulling in the garden next to Amber’s back porch, I recognized a familiar pattern in the black dirt. Two hundred miles from my wild, pure woodlands, in the middle of a noisy, bustling city, grew a morel.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

warm winds carry spring
to the border of summer
on butterfly wings

Monday, May 18, 2009

The first day

I woke up this morning to a room filled with sunlight filtered through the new green leaves on the box elder tree outside our bedroom window. For some reason, it felt like the first day of summer vacation. I remember one first day of summer vacation when I put on shorts and a halter top and ran outside. By breakfast I had changed to long pants, and a sweatshirt. I was probably ten then. Today, I knew that the sunlight was deceptive. The temperatures have been down in the low thirties almost every night in the last week.

But the cool temperatures didn’t keep us inside. Dave took sugar water down to the bees. One hive is doing very well, one fairly well and one is very slow. But Dave says the queens are all laying eggs, and the workers are all collecting pollen and nectar. The Virginia Bluebells have formed an azure lake under the box elders in the woods above the apiary. When I went down to admire them, I found three little bellworts blooming. A fat, yellow honeybee was wedging his body up into the hanging, twisted petals of the dainty yellow flowers collecting pollen and nectar himself.

The trees in the yard are full of the songs of birds. Brilliant orioles, scarlet tanagers, and sap suckers fight over the nectar feeder, the oranges, and the grape jelly. A low buzz overhead heralded a hummingbird scouting the situation. In the crab apple, gold finches, purple finches, chickadees and the wood peckers sunned and ate.

We planted fifty strawberries in the morning, and fifty trees in the afternoon.We dug holes, added water, and buried the roots of chokecherries and crab apples from the Soil Conservation Service in the west hill of the hay field. We also planted tiny little oak seedlings. Dave had gathered the acorns from under a beautiful spreading white oak in the north central pasture last fall. He scarified them in the freezer all winter and planted them in peat pots in early April. The seedlings had tiny reddish green sprouts, barely 2” tall, but when we tore open the bottom of the peat pots to allow the roots easier access to the ground, we found fat white roots, three or four inches long curled at the bottom of each pot. Hopefully those roots will sink themselves into the hillside and rapidly begin shifting water and nutrients into the oak seedlings, because at this point, they are completely lost in the surrounding vegetation.

The west hill is really too steep to safely pull a hay wagon across, especially a hay wagon loaded with 50 to 100 bales of hay and two people. So we are gradually planting trees onto the hill and letting the alfalfa and grasses grow on their own. The thistles however, we have to do something about, so every year we spend hours with a scythe and an herbicide sprayer, killing thistles. The ground around the trees we planted a dozen years ago has all grown in to grass – no thistles. So we know that in this limited area, persistence really works against thistles.

Now we just have to find the time on one of these beautiful early summer days, to spray the thistles while they are still small and vulnerable. It is not the first day of summer vacation, but the first day of this week, and of another season of growing, harvesting and preserving. The first day, as the old cliche says so well, of the rest of our lives.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The mother-baby bond

Yesterday we gave 150 shots and weaned the lambs. It was hard on all of us. Dave caught and held 46 babies while I gave each of them a second shot to prevent overeating disease and an injection of Ivermectin, a very good wormer. The lambs were surprised by the shots and sometimes skittered around afterward at the momentary discomfort. After the shots, Dave set the lamb into one of two pens, the keepers and the meat lambs.

When we finished with the lambs, we began the ewes. They are way too big to lift over the fence, and since we didn’t have to divide them, just keep track of who had had a shot, we marked each sheep’s nose with a yellow marking crayon after her injection of Ivermectin. The sheep didn’t actually want to be caught, so Dave had to chase, grab and then take down or pin every ewe against the wall. It was quite a battle. I seem to only get in the way, so Dave chooses a ewe, grabs a hind leg, moves in on her to hold her flanks, flips her onto her side and lays on her, all by himself. Then I step in and quite easily inject one to two cc’s of Ivermectin just under their skin. Then I scribble on her nose with a crayon and Dave lets her go. As we worked our way through the flock, the noise level increased as babies and mothers realized that they could see each other and hear each other, but they couldn’t reach each other.

After all the lams and ewes have had their shots, we release the ewes into the pen with the keeper lambs and quickly drove them out through two gates to the north pasture. We have to keep them moving so that they are in the far pasture before they realize that they have left their lambs behind. The best mothers are the hardest to move because they don’t want to go anywhere without their lambs. They keep turning around, trying to go back and find them.

I remember what it was like to be a nursing mom, I had a hard time leaving my daughters with my parents, to say nothing of a baby sitter. And I knew I would see my girls in a few days. I can’t imagine losing my babies forever. I can’t imagine what my ewes are thinking.

I know what I’m thinking. The lambs who are left behind in the barn are my sale lambs. Gradually over the summer, people will come to buy those lambs from us for lamb roasts. And we will sell them.

Tonight, when we go to bed, we’ll hear the ewes in the north pasture baaing for their babies, and we’ll hear the lambs in the barnyard baaing for their mothers. That is our penance.

On the other hand, many of the lambs are almost as big as their mothers. Christmas has two lambs her size. If we don’t wean those babies, Christmas will get thinner and thinner, her nipples will wear and her patience will thin. So we also do the ewes a favor by weaning their babies. I just wish that we could explain it so that they would understand.

In a few days, the baaing will stop. In a week, we will stop worrying about an animal breaking through the fences to rejoin with family. In a month, if the lambs and ewes somehow end up in the same pasture, most of them won’t un-wean themselves, but a few, a few of the good mothers, or those with persistent lambs, will begin nursing again. Motherhood is a strong bond, whether you are a sheep or a person.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Take the time

Photos by Jenny Ellison

Sometimes it takes fresh eyes to see the sheep as they really are.

Sister-in-law Jenny and niece Becca brought Grandma Alice up for fiber day and spent some time in the barnyard. Their favorite lamb was of course Little Bit, in spite, or perhaps because of his scrawniness. But a close second was Chewie, who is out of his cast and getting around pretty well.

We found Apple Blossom, the ewe Becca adopted several years ago. I had taken her photo and we used that photo to identify Apple Blossom by the black dot on her nose and her ears that stuck straight out. Without the photo, I’m not sure I would have found Apple Blossom. She had lost her tag and been retagged. Becca was glad to see her and even happier to see that she had had two babies, a boy and a girl. Maybe we’ll be able to add Apple Blossom’s daughter to our flock this year. I couldn’t have picked her out of the flock. It took careful looking on Becca’s and my part.

Jenny took the time to really watch the lambs and found some wonderful images.

A good lesson for me. Take the time to really watch. All to easily they become nothing more than mouths that have to be fed. I forget to sit in the sun and appreciate the warmth, the soft wind on my face and the baaing of the ewes and their lambs checking up on each other.

Take the time. It should be a mantra for this decade of my life. Take the time.

Little Bit, Chewie and Becca and I

Sunday, May 10, 2009


Farmers are working their fields. The raw brown earth looks rich against the faded gray of the soil still unturned. A goldfinch in the red leaved crabapple is suddenly bright yellow. The willow buds are a light spring green, feathery against the unbudded trees behind them. The blue scilla have multiplied and I have found three more hepatica blooming in the woods. In the small pond in our backyard, the buds on the marsh marigold are rimmed in bright yellow gold. In the pasture, a droplet of dew reflects the morning sun like a jewel.

I am in awe of the colors of the world.

My favorite fiber activity is dyeing. I love the way colors blend with each other to create new colors. Red dye on gray wool yields a beautiful deep gray with a hint of red, or red with a hint of gray, nicely variegated because my yarns are variegated.

At the end of every season, I look at the fleeces left over from the last years shearing and decide what to do with them. Do I need carded roving, carded batts or yarn? Do I have fifty pounds? Blackberry Ridge Spinning Mill requires a minimum of 50 pounds of clean wool to spin a beautiful 2 ply yarn. If I combine light gray fleeces and dark gray fleeces and a brown fleece or two and send them off to the mill, I get back a beautiful subtly variegated yarn – sometimes light, sometimes dark, sometimes in between.

When I dye those variegated yarns, the color spectrum that results is surprising and beguiling. Blue and light gray, oh, nice. Lets try it again with a little green in there too. What about madder orange and dark gray. Just a hint of color, of warmth. Wonderful!

Twice a year, fiber people (people who love working with wool, mohair, angora, pine needles, silk, or cotton - knitters, weavers, felters, quilters) gather at our farm to share their enthusiasms. They bring projects to work on and food to share. We build a fire and run dye pots all day long for people who want to learn how to dye, for people who don’t have the supplies at home, and for people who just enjoy playing with colors.

People experiment, try new dyeing techniques, redye past attempts and take home bags of beautiful colors. They dye raw wool, yarn, fabric, even completed projects. They always leave with something new, not always what they were expecting, not always something beautiful - but most often something stunning, and always having learned a little more about their fiber and a little more about color.

Some times we play with natural dyes, using onion skins or common mullien to dye wool various shades of gold or a beautiful khaki green. Sometimes we use commercial dyes which seem to come in all the colors of the rainbow and we combine those dyes to create new colors or add a little black for new shades. We vary intensity and add different fibers. Mohair picks us the colors more strongly than wool and its fibers are lustrous. Pull a skein of wool/mohair yarn from the indigo dye pot and watch the colors shimmer across each other as the light reflects off the mohair.

I love to play with the colors of the world.

Friday, May 8, 2009

A good home

I sold two bottle lambs yesterday. Two lambs to a good home. A home with three children who aren’t at all intimidated by the enthusiasm that the lambs want to share with them. The girl, kneeling in the straw of the barn, leans back as number 23 tastes her long hair. Her little brother, barely able to walk himself, staggers after Chewie and his older brother races after a third lamb. Their favorite is Little Bit, with his enthusiasm and his cute long tail and his obvious affection.

But I won’t sell them Little Bit. When I walk out to feed the sheep I still expect to find Little Bit dead, trampled by the ewes or starved over night, or gone, stolen by eagles or coyotes or fox. Every day, when Little Bit races around the corner of the barn, still limping a little, but keeping up with the flock, my heart is glad.

But just because Little Bit is alive and runs with the flock doesn’t mean that he is healthy. We have no idea what internal damage his mother’s malnutrition or genetics caused in him, what damage kept him from breathing, deformed his shoulders, skewed his ability to regulate his body temperature. It wouldn’t be fair to new shepherds to sell or even give them a lamb that they would grow to love, only to lose.

Saying that, I realize that I lose every lamb eventually. Some in the first instants of life, most during the summer to ethnic feasts, a few to new homes with other shepherds, and some to old age. Losing a lamb to old age is the best loss, the one where I watch the lamb grow; I cherish her fleeces and her babies; I coddle her as she ages; and I mourn her death.

I have lost two lambs since yesterday. But it was a good loss, and I smiled as we stuffed little white 23 and a slightly larger black lamb, number 41, into a pet carrier in the back of the car. The lambs are baaing. The kids are baaing back. These lambs will join some piglets and horses to build an old fashioned farm for this family, to build a good home.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

fence lines

young lambs in the field
coyotes howl in the distance
we check the fence line