Like the web wound tight around a fly or nets that tangle a fish, I feel my heart ensnared by this country. Like a twist of binder twine in the grass, like the sleepy snakes I found curled up inside an old tire, like the little dust devil Orca and I once saw whirling the leaves just outside our door, like the smoke winding out of the chimney or the way the horses wheel in tighter circles until they fall down in the snow and roll roll roll: I feel myself caught up in the Great Spiral of life. As the universe spins ever outward I notice moments pass, days – a dozen years – and sights, sounds, thoughts seem familiar, as if I’ve passed this way before. I’ve seen this season, I’ve felt this sensation, I’ve noticed this mood or that tree or the way the cat’s eyes reflect the morning light. There have been full moons, and new moons and the sun has risen in the east every day of my life. And yet it’s all brand new.
It’s been snowing again in the Kispiox Valley. Billions of flakes each one unique come spiraling down from a blue-grey sky. Little streaks of white – probably miles across, if I try to measure them against the mountains – hint at sunshine later. Or maybe not.
The old almanacs predicted a snowy winter this year and so far we have seen two or three feet fall and settle. I was raised in snow country. I am not alarmed by snow. I know to put things away in the fall, because anything left out in the open will soon lose its defining characteristics under that soft blanket and be lost until spring. Even a spare vehicle will be reduced to a vague shape over there somewhere. But no matter how deep the snow, it will be manageable, as long as we do our preventative maintenance, and the weather stays colder than zero. There is no guarantee of that, of course. Even a couple of degrees makes the difference between cozy stalls and dry bedding or creeping damp with dripping eaves. At this stage of winter we are unlikely to return to the deep sucking mud of autumn, but moist cold air – or freezing rain – will plaster a bird’s feathers down, and penetrate a horse’s winter coat. Pigs suffer in the damp, when the bedding loses its loft and mould spores wake up. The barnyard hydrant is more likely to freeze up during a melt, when the frost line moves upward. No, we like it to be cold in the winter.
Metal roofs, which most of ours are, serve people well in snow country, except when temperatures hover around freezing, and the bottom layer of snow – closest to the warmth of the fire, or the breath of the animals – melts and freezes repeatedly. Then a solid layer of ice forms, and the weight on the roof increases until that tentative seal is broken and the icy snow slides in great sheets – like bed covers flung off with the sound of the rooster. Until then, it settles grudgingly, hunkered like an unpredictable beast that might lunge over the edge at any moment to crash in hundredweights on the ground below.
We have only to glance out the cabin window to the wreckage of our little tarp-covered shed, to be reminded that every system has its tolerance and its limits. Mindful though we were of the plastic greenhouses and the goat shelters, we forgot about the vacant shed, picturesque under its load of snow. When we arrived on the farm last year, it was just a frame, bolted to the ground, and probably once used as a carport. We gave it a tarp roof, which was repeatedly ripped off by the howling East Winds, until finally the tarp was beyond repair. This year the weather has been much kinder, and the tarp much more heavy-duty. We anchored the grommets to the frame with zip ties, and stored tires, and hay, and machinery that was taking up space in the woodshed. We added a door and some heavy wire to make a shelter for the goose, and later, attached chicken wire above that so the younger chickens could grow in piece, and later still, we needed a shady space for the baby chicks who arrived in the mail during a heat wave. Since then, we’ve used the little shed as a night shelter for the second litter of pups, born outdoors, and an extra place for goats to get out of the rain. Goats don’t like rain. After that, with various improvements in animal accommodations, including a new chicken coop and hayloft, the space wasn’t really needed, and sheltered only a metal cart on wheels and a last bale of straw brought in as mulch for the garlic. These survived the shed’s collapse.
The twisted remains are an eyesore. I have shoveled away the heavy ice, to free the damaged tarp, and salvaged some of the metal tubing. I accidentally pitched a corner piece through the south window of the outhouse. Now it looks haunted. I have yet to disentangle the homemade door, the wire netting and 2×4’s, and recover all the zip ties, which are impossible to release and have to be cut. That’s why the police like them so well – they can be pulled nice and tight and they’re cheaper than handcuffs.
Plastic can be a terrible polluter. We are still finding the shreds of buried tarps in the fields and the woods and the barnyard. Nature reclaims everything, faster than you’d think, but some materials are more trouble than others. Concrete, after all, is rocks and minerals accreted together and easily worn away in mere decades. Wood, metal, fiber, glass (but not fiberglass) – all will crumble and be reabsorbed into the elements. Plastic is different. But you know all these things. You can bury it, or burn it, but better to gather it up and take it to the dump. We love the dump. We’re not so stupid that we believe our junk is “gone” but we don’t have to trip over it or find places to pile it. Instead, the dump lady in her big machine mixes it in with everyone else’s junk, in one designated place.
So where was I? Spirals, and rhythms, and life on the farm.
November has wound down, and we’re past the Cold Moon of December. The solstice is almost here and the merciful snow is falling again, covering all the signs – and sins – revealed by the melt. For example, blood. We butchered late. The chickens weren’t growing as expected so we delayed awhile, fed them a lot and waited for a clear day to gather a crew to help us get them into the freezer. We had three people plucking, eviscerating, weighing and bagging, and me and a neighbour on the killing floor. Over and over, I made the stealthy, treacherous foray into the greenhouse coop to snatch up a speckled hen and bear it, trembling, out into the snow where my burly neighbour stood ready. As gently as I could, I would place each bird backwards under my arm, holding the legs with my other hand, and turn so he could grasp the neck and stretch it out for the knife. Each time, I felt the tug and the jerk in my own body. Then I would let the bird swing downwards into a pail, where the blood froze as it dripped. Death does not come instantly, or truly gently for anything killed before its time. A chicken really will run around for a while after its head is cut off, or it will kick mightily for a long minute when held upside down to bleed out in a bucket. At some point, I decided the remaining few birds were too little to make a meal, so I called a halt to the carnage and we two helped with the “processing”. I use quotation marks to emphasize that this is a euphemism, designed to make a hard truth more bearable, and less laden with details.
If all this sounds grim, it is. There are choices in how involved you want to get. If you butcher at home, which I think is easiest on the animals, if not on you, each helper takes on the job they are best at, or you could load all the chickens, or pigs, or sheep onto a truck and drive them an hour or more to the abattoir, which, being a French word, sounds nicer to me than slaughter house, but they are exactly the same thing. Here, each animal would await its death, with debatable awareness of what is to come. It would be no different than on the farm, except for that stressful journey. One thing for certain, though, and I don’t think anyone involved would argue: once a chicken is killed and plucked, or a pig gutted and hung, it is food – clean, nutritious, delicious meat – for which we are truly thankful.
A few days after this, the weather begins to shift. The breeze is up, the moon is out, and clouds stream down from the east like avenging angels. I want to go to the neighbour’s bonfire, but first, we have agreed, we will transfer those remaining chickens to the new hen house, recently built in the barn. There is a thick ground fog creeping up from the river, a sign of the impending melt, though we haven’t made that connection yet. My daughter and I take the trembling birds (as she says, “how do they know this is not their dying day?”) one by one from their perch, tuck them under our arms, and stumble through deep snow in the dark, pushing through the throng of curious goats (do they never sleep?) to open the gate one-handed, and close it again in their faces. Goats have obsessive minds. They would like nothing more than to get at the chicken feed in the coop, or better yet, gain access to the feed room alongside, with its smorgasbord of grains and salty minerals.
After a trip or two, we find it easier to climb the fence, balancing a chicken each. We creak open the hen house door, mindful of the goose, who has become more protective (and aggressive) as the snow encroaches on his freedom, and hold each chicken above an empty spot on the roost. We wait for her to cling on with her dinosaur claws, and go back for another trip. We have learned to re-home chickens after dark, when everybody is sleepy, so that when the old chickens and new chickens wake up in the morning, they will think all their life before was a dream, and this is how the world is, and they have always been together.
Not everyone gets to live in a way that keeps them connected to nature, or if they do they prefer a well-planned garden with the illusion of control. A lot of us are afraid of the wild, the cold, the storms. But storms, heat waves, power outages – they come and go, as do idyllic sunny days at the river, and visits from beloved family and friends. Everything is temporary, everything passes, nothing stays the same. Every day, each moment, is new, and ancient. My job is to stay present, and that is much harder than hauling bales or unloading bags of feed, digging in the garden or facing down the goose when he’s mad. It’s easier to be present when there’s an emergency, or a string of emergencies, or occurrences that feel urgent, whether they truly are or not. It can get so that your nervous system thinks everything needs immediate attention, and that’s how you can stay busy and never have to sink down to face a deeper truth.
Finding a young pig buried in the hay, refusing to get up or to eat, is not an emergency. There is time to go back to the house, drink a cup of coffee, and plan what to do. Vet visits are expensive and therefore rare, but sometimes they are just out of the question: for example, if an animal is bleeding, you won’t get a vet there in time to do anything. Impending births are always a bit nerve-wracking, so most of us know which vets are on call, in case we need to be talked through a procedure. Persistent lameness might be a reason to pay for a vet to drive the hour from Smithers, and gelding a horse is nearly always a good reason.
Celeste the pig responded to the enticement of an apple, hand fed to her in little pieces. After that, she was willing to try the warm porridge we brought out in a bucket. We had to be surreptitious, while the others were at the trough, crouching in the hay beside her and trying not to draw the boar’s attention. This was not because the little bugger is aggressive, but because he’s going to want what’s in the bucket, and would knock you over to get at it. Celeste is only half the size of her momma, but it’s still hard to coax 300 pounds of sulking adolescent sore-legged pig to her feet and assess whether there’s anything broken. Obviously not, if she can stand on it, no matter how shaky she is at first. Enticing is always easier than pushing, my daughter has taught me. After a few days of watchful care, there were 4 flat, rubbery snouts (so cute!) at the trough again: Celeste, Mama pig, Kitsune – our hope for the future – and Bruiser, aka Tiny Pig or, lately, “Spring Pork” – who, like the little chickens, is wintering over without the extra competition for food.
No, nothing needs to be done quickly unless someone is bleeding or choking. Goats with their heads caught in buckets or under fences need to be disentangled, but speed can panic the animal and botch the job. The mare who suddenly loses condition got that way for a reason, and it can take time to discover what is wrong, and what she needs. Smoke or water leaking where they shouldn’t are semi-emergencies. So are floods, frozen pipes, open gates, breaks in the fence and missing animals.
Now, just before Solstice and Yuletide, we are in the season of cold, quiet waiting. We’re staying home this year, awaiting our visitors. This means there is time for socializing, and snowshoeing, letter-writing and Netflix. Trips to town are at a minimum: most of what we need is in the larder. The animals don’t require much. The pigs all but hibernate between meals, although there are trails in the deep snow criss-crossing through their pasture so we know they take their exercise. The horses and dogs are as active as ever, but they all (except the new puppy, who is a couch potato) love the snow and keep each other busy and fit. Chores only take 40 minutes twice a day. Thanks to the new arrangements, everyone can be fed from a central location.
When my daughter built the coop adjoining the west wall of the feed room, she cut holes in back of each nest box. She fashioned a set of doors that cover them on our side, so now when I check for eggs, it’s like opening a giant Advent calendar. I ease the doors open and see if there’s a prize in any of the nests. The novelty of finding more eggs than I can fit in my pockets has not worn off yet. When a hen is laying, her soft feathers bulge at the opening. If we move quietly, she is not disturbed; we can come back later. Once, I was transformed from gatherer to awed observer when a hen stood up, backlit by the soft red glow of the heat lamp. Her egg appeared amidst the feathers of her fluffy backside and fell the last inch or two into the clean shavings. I saw how she bent to it, rolling it gently a little forward and back, and settled her body over it. After a moment, apparently satisfied, she stood again and jumped from the nest, fluttering to the ground. I cradled the blood-warm egg, glad for the experience, glad for the food.
I have been to chicken school and back this year as I try to figure out which breeds I want to help coax back from the brink of extinction, which give a balance of meat and eggs, which will look after their own chicks – and they’ll have to when all the power in the world goes out and the incubator doesn’t work anymore. A lot of bothersome traits have been bred right out of our modern chickens, broodiness, for example, foraging urges, and the ability to fly up into trees, which leaves many breeds unsuited to survival in the Northern Bush. And, though I thought I had made good choices, there is always an element of idealism when you read hatchery brochures, or seed catalogues. My dream is to work toward a self-sustaining flock. Let’s see how I can move that forward next year. I have some leads on Icelandic chickens, whose genetics go back 1000 years, and are at least 78% distinct from all other chickens in the world. More on that in future.
My heritage hens took their sweet time but they’re laying now, enough eggs to give us breakfast and do some baking and make Christmas eggnog. Ahem. Every night. The freezers are full of pork, poultry and vegetables. It was hard to take part in the hog butchering, but I am glad to say it went as well as it could have. My daughter gently enticed the two in question to another pen, out of sight of the rest of the herd. People will tell you “pigs know” and maybe they do, but I can swear that when our neighbour shot the one pig, the other beside him did not look up from his breakfast, and when he did look up a few moments later, he also received a 22 bullet in the forehead. It’s never fun to see the death throes of an animal whose brain is no longer communicating with its body, but as soon as it’s over, the meat is a harvest. The butchering part is incredibly hard physical work and I can see why people get it done at the abbatoir. I want to be confident we know every step though, and I want to provide the best life I can on the farm, until that “one bad moment”.
I did wonder if Momma Pig noticed the reduction in numbers, later. She seemed listless for a few days, and the damp chill had me worried. How do you comfort a 600 pound sow? Answer, from a young friend with far more experience than I: Get her a round bale of hay, or peas, or wheat straw, and wrestle it off your truck into her shelter and let her and her remaining family get busy burrowing and pushing it around to make a warm nest. I swear there were smiles. Nothing like a bustle and a purpose to raise the spirits.
I was afraid of butchering day. It loomed as a final hurdle in a year full of challenges. I was afraid it wouldn’t be planned well enough, or something would go wrong. I was afraid of how it would feel to take the life of a pig whose company I had enjoyed. Worse than killing chickens, or fish? I wondered if it would put me off pork for good, frankly. I have been afraid often here: not of the cold or the dark or power failures or the isolation so much, but of what those elements might do to the animals in my care. Afraid that, through inexperience, I might not have provided adequately for them.
I have also been afraid of the animals themselves, at different times – of the horses, the pigs, a particularly aggressive rooster, and of the goose when he’s in a mood. Not of the goats, though I suppose even those gentle souls could turn rogue in the wrong circumstances. I can see why someone might say “get rid of that animal” or be inclined to incarcerate it or beat it to make it afraid of them. I have personally eaten a mean rooster. I still don’t find it pleasant to be crowded by the horses, or to look up and see Fly the Attack Pony bearing down on me in the field when I’m far from cover. I don’t like that the goose has turned crabby, and his movements have to be considered when I’m feeding chickens and goats. But I’ve gained more from dealing with each situation than I would if I were never afraid in the first place. I’ve become less afraid of each thing as I get to know it more intimately, and stop taking the situation personally, like a Vancouverite offended by the weather.
I have been afraid of failure, of running out of money, of never seeing certain people again, of my parents dying while I’m far away, of my own premature death. But I know that fear can stop us from doing what we love, or what we want to do. Our own fears can stop us from allowing others to be themselves, to pursue their true natures. It can make us cling too tightly, so we lose our perspective. It can stop us from thinking things through. In our culture we have allowed fear to rule. We believe we should get rid of what we fear, rather than learn not to fear it. We believe that fear is legitimate in that way, and enough reason not to proceed. We will never be free of fear and anxiety but it can’t be allowed to dictate our lives, or our politics.
I don’t know if living out here will make me brave, or drive me crazy. Or something in between. I don’t think I care, really, as long as I get to be here.
The thermometer reads -9, and falling. The sky is clear, hyacinth blue, and every crevice and contour of the mountains is limned with white. Today the snow has formed into little flat discs, like billions of bits of mica, each one unique, and the land lays quiet and frozen, enfolding the life to come. I feed the pigs and chickens and goats and horses, and the goose, who can’t be arsed to cooperate and go to be just yet. The dogs and I head back to the house, the cold nipping at my fingers and toes, the tips of my ears. Darkness gathers us up; stars pierce the sky like needlework. Dinner awaits, and bed. Soon the night will pass, and then another, til the Solstice, and the great wheel will start to rise toward the light again.