My Wild and Hopeful Heart

It’s a fresh and lovely rainy day at the farm: not that pounding rain that churns up the mud and makes you want to huddle by the fire but more like a breathable mist that hydrates all thirsty beings.  Although we’ve  had several frosty nights, all the way down to -10C, the afternoons have been mellow and merciful.

The colours were exquisite this year, bronze, gold, mulberry, scarlet – and against my expectations – every shade of green. The roadsides looked as if they were landscaped by some crazy master gardener with an unlimited budget.

In the midst of this perfection, I received a visitor, who happens to be a landscape gardener. She was here for a break from her city life and, knowing her expertise, I asked her for some help and advice with a particular project that would not have even been on the radar a few months ago. The entrance to the farm is nondescript. There is a little bluff, and then a curving slope between the ditch and the switch-back driveway.  Over below the bluff there were (and are) swathes of orchard grass backed by a stand of fluffy-topped fireweed, in a display unparalleled by any English garden, but in the middle was a crowd of tiny aspens and cottonwoods, and the rest of the slope is barren.

What soil is there is lean and rocky, populated by tough and wiry invasive weeds, because Nature abhors a vacuum and will leave no soil bare unless it is toxic to life. This stuff is called hawkweed, and the name is poison on the tongue. This plant splats itself in disturbed, infertile ground in a hairy mat, preventing any other wayward or purpose-sown seed from taking hold. There really is no hope of getting rid of it; apparently it regenerates by root, seed or runner, like strawberries but without the benefits. Even mowing down the flowers encourages the spread of hawkweed. I find in certain places, where there’s no plan to grow anything else, it makes a good lawn substitute and the blooms are a pretty shade of yellow. In this case, however, noting how it thrives in dry sparse conditions, and how it has disappeared anywhere we’ve pastured chickens, maybe the churlish weeds would choke on a good load of  poo.  We’ve got poo!  But it’s too fresh, and besides, it would have to be collected with shovel and wheelbarrow and trundled hundreds of yards. So I called my neighbours, who have both horses and a big old loader that can fill my little Tacoma with one scoop.  An hour later and a lot of coordinated shovelling and we’d distributed two loads of nice old crumbly dirt.

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And so the project to beautify our little bit of roadside began. Squinting at the powerline, and estimating the canopy twenty years from now, my gardener friend transplanted seven maple trees from their nursery spot in the vegetable garden. They are brave little whips with a few scattered leaves but I envision them forty feet tall, majestic and flaming red in some future fall.  We rescued a root-bound goat-nibbled forsythia from sure death on my front porch, and positioned it right in the middle of the slope, perchance to thrive and blossom vibrant in the spring.

While the gardener planted trees, on her busman’s holiday, I wielded my trusty loppers and thinned out the aspen saplings to one tenth of their numbers. Thistles are best pulled out by hand, I find, but oh the tortuous prickles that get you through your gloves. They were already going to seed, so I may have just helped them out, and I also managed to scatter thousands of wild parsnip seeds in a bid to subdue those scary pungent invaders that vie for the same ground as my beloved fireweed. “Get a bag!” called my friend but it was too late. I’ll resume my weary battle in the spring. One weird old fact is that the roots of the most terrible weeds are often edible, and medicinal and this is so for the Wild Parsnip, cousin to the truly frightening Giant Hogweed, and also of Burdock.  One or two specimen plants in pots would do; we don’t need acres of them.

I used to like it that our driveway is so hard to see, and our place is virtually invisible from the road. I think I needed a couple of years of toiling away in privacy and solitude before I felt ready to announce our presence, and proclaim “here we are!” I needed us to live through all the cycles of birth-death-life in the garden and the barnyard, to establish the routines of planting the vegetables and caring for the animals. I was happy, meanwhile, to be masked by weeds and rampant bush. But this fall I began to feel differently, more welcoming, and the urge to enhance and beautify welled up.

When we arrived in the summer of 2016, this place was overgrown with waist-high grass, but essentially neat and tidy. The well is deep, the water good, the barn and outbuildings have electricity. There is a generator wired into the house. The sheds were full of potentially useful treasures and the collections of windows, doors, lumber and yes, old bicycles promised lots of future projects. Other collections have not fared well with the passage of time; gradually we have sorted through what we might use someday and what no longer serves us. Many dump runs later, my heart and mind are turning, in spare moments, to a number of pretty little projects. It’s not about taming anything – an impossible task even if I wanted that – but about modifying certain areas here and there that might provide a haven for someone, maybe a break from engaging with this big, wild country. A bench here, a tiny garden there, a picnic table, one day a labyrinth where people can walk out their confusion and turmoil. It will be years before any of these ideas mature, but I feel ready to lay down the bones, and I’m starting with coaxing Mother Nature to let me join in, however naive and arrogant the urge might be. The thing is, the whole landscape has been repeatedly disturbed and altered by humans. It’s exciting to see how, left to itself for a brief while, nature marches back in, but notwithstanding her incredible beauty, she is sometimes a bit of a hoyden with her messy weeds and overgrown saplings. I just want to wash her behind the ears and pin her hair back so I can see her face.

Later, when my friend is gone, refreshed and renewed and still with many miles to walk in city shoes, I troll through spring bulb catalogues. As a landscaper, she is a fan of the tall sturdy daffodil and suggested planting hundreds. I know the likelihood of finding time to dig all those holes before frost is slim, but still I am seduced by dreams of how that small patch of ground could look, come spring and all the springs to come. I prefer subtler hues and bulbs that will naturalize (I am naturally lazy, and though I will work hard if I must and for as long as I need to, I love the idea that once started, a garden would grow itself). I am also a gambler at heart, and so I have ordered bluebells and hyacinths, native wild flower seeds and narcissus, and though I picture a carpet of colour, the landscape will always dwarf my efforts, and only I will notice the little patches of blossom amongst the wilder shrubs and grasses. I am “pushing the season” as we used to say, and who knows if the mail will deliver my bulbs in time, and the frost will hold off long enough for me to tuck them all in before winter has her way with all of us.

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Drizzle and Shine

I had the privilege of spending time in Ireland recently, with some very fine people.  It was hard to be away from the farm in spring time but wonderful to be on the Emerald Isle, in the land of the faeries.  We, as a group, had similar goals and the tour was arranged by a teacher with whom each of us had spent at least three years learning about Celtic Shamanism and many other things to do with life and death, and all that lies between, in a human life on Mother Earth, with Father Sky above.  Every day was full, with visits to sacred sites and ceremony or music and Irish ale, and then integration while we slept and travelled.

Once I was back on the farm, I realized that I had experienced what I can only describe as an expansion of the heart, which has changed how I see the world around me and my place in it.  I think those changes of heart and of vision happen often, maybe without our noticing.  When we do notice, it’s significant.   The main symptom, for me, is that I find it easier to laugh, and I’m more relaxed inside myself, so that when things go south, I can tell whether getting worked up is going to help or not.  I feel a sort of unapologetic joy about being alive, even though I know that much is wrong with the world, and many things will get worse before they get better.  I am vowing to stay in this joy as long as it lasts, and do what I can to keep it hanging around me.

So, in this expansive, big-hearted mode, I found myself feeling absolutely sure it was time to buy some cows and bring them home to the farm.  The speed at which the whole deal transpired seemed only to confirm the choice as the right one.   These cows are small and black.  They’re purebred Dexters, originally from Ireland (o! the coincidence!).  They are hardy, they forage for part of their food, they are lighter with smaller hooves than their counterparts so they aren’t as damaging to pasture (and our pastures need some TLC).  They fit into the species map…goats and horses and cows eat different things, in different patterns and rotational grazing can help the grass, although it remains to be seen if we can discourage the plants that nobody likes to eat, in favour of more succulent fare.

On my drive home, I detoured in behind Lac la Hache to visit the lady farmer and the cows.  We only had an hour together before she had to leave, but in that time I became thoroughly convinced that this was the herd for me.  I made my bumpy way back to the highway and continued on to Quesnel, where I spent the night in possibly the strangest-smelling motel room in existence.  Well, let’s not forget the one on the way down.  That one reeked of death and drains.  This was more disturbing,  because the air didn’t seem like anything you would willingly pull into your lungs.    I opened up all the windows and the door and made my supper in the “kitchenette”, which was actually a hotplate on a regular dresser, with dishes and utensils scattered in the drawers.  I slept, and when I woke I drove to Prince George to meet a very eccentric lady (unlike myself) who sold me some young pullets to bring home and add to my lackadaisical flock in the hopes of eventually boosting the egg count at Nagata Family Farm.

It was so good to get home.  The whole place had greened up.  All the youngsters had grown enormously.  Boie, my puppy, is nine months old now and bigger than his mom.  The twins look like real little goats, long-legged and pointy-horned.  There is a new horse, whom I hadn’t met, a retired jumper named Chako.  That brings the Horse Nation up to five members. Chako towers over our compact little group.  His legs are so long he could sail over any fence, but why would he do that when the Big Field has everything he needs right now, most notably companionship and an almost complete lack of pressure?  Apparently every time our friend Grace tried to sell him, he’d come up lame or be off his feed somehow.  Maybe he knew if he could stay close he’d end up in a place like this.

The field where the horses live much of the time is quite big, and there are trees for shade and shelter and a seasonal creek.  For weeks it held a lake, deep enough to invite a pair of wild geese and a little flock of Sandhill Cranes.  We were pretty sure there’d be room for cows as well.  Apparently horses and cows get along alright.

I’ve read that Dexters are triple purpose cattle.  Their milk is said to rival that of a Jersey, with its high cream content and small milk molecules that make it naturally homogenized.  They say the butter is magnificent, which would mean the cheese should be good too.  They are small, but give delicious beef, and they can be trained to pull like little oxen.   What could be bad?  They have a reputation as friendly, quiet animals who are easy birthers (as long as the father is small like them) and affectionate with one another’s young.  So should I get heifers, or steers or a mother/calf pair?  If I got a fertile cow with a calf, both could be bred in the future.  But would one cow be lonely?  A steer would provide meat sooner rather than later but it seemed cold to eat one and leave the other lonely after all.  And what about fending off predators, should the wolves or a bear get past the horses?  What about fending off the horses?

It seemed almost to be decided for me.  There were two cow/calf pairs and a yearling bull.  There were steers destined for market in the fall. Did I want a bull?  Dexters can’t breed with any other cattle except possibly an Angus, that throws small calves with narrow shoulders.  But still…and if I had one cow, wouldn’t two make more sense?  We wouldn’t want to separate Adele and Betty, who’d known each other all their lives.  Wait, how old were they?  Adele is 5, and Betty’s 4.  Young yet, but each has had 2 calves and both are ready to milk, once we learn from you tube how to milk a cow that doesn’t know us.  Okay, so that’s suddenly five cows.  Well, we eat beef and if we want to eat our own beef, why not add in a steer who would otherwise be auctioned off ?   And then there’s that little part-Angus heifer that keeps catching my eye.

So once I’d arranged for a hauler, and he’d picked up the cows, I e-transferred payment to the lady and her part was done.   Then, when the hauler arrived here and opened the back of the trailer and seven sets of hooves hit the ground, I paid him and he drove away and his part was done.  The cows ran up to the other end of the field and paused for a nibble of grass, probably four minutes, maybe five, and they were gone.  They didn’t even break the fence, they just Houdini’d through it and off into the many hundred acres of bush that borders our cleared land.

We tried to head them off, and my daughter spent most of the day following them around and trying to entice them with grain.  They would simply melt into the trees when she got too close.  The second day we didn’t even get a sighting, and despair was hovering.  I wasn’t actually all that worried for their safety because I knew they’d be together, and they were loose in Cow Paradise, but I was stunned at how quickly several thousand dollars had tipped down the drain.  Monday or Tuesday rolled around and I got a message from one of the neighbours saying several black cows had appeared in their bottom field, and rumour said they might be ours.  She had the grace not to snicker.

That was exciting, and relieving, but it’s a big field and a week later, the cows are still there, freeloading and providing entertainment and eye candy for anyone driving by.  They look good against the rich green of the grass and the stormy, turbulent skies.  Meanwhile, we have arranged to get help fixing the fence, and while we’re at it, why not spend thousands more and rebuild the fifty-year old fence around the Big Field?  And let’s also push out a hundred yards to the East to include the seasonal creek, which will mean hauling a lot less water until the freeze.  Heady stuff, making solid, lasting improvements and breaking the bank.  Thank goodness I’m so rejuvenated and grounded after my beautiful Ireland trip.

The fence repairman happens to be the son of the neighbour hosting our cows, so it sounds like a plan is afoot to round up the herd with cow ponies and corral them so they can be funnelled into a stock trailer and brought back to their nice, tight field.  It is Rodeo Weekend in the Kispiox, so everybody’s up on their cow-moving chops.  Part of me is grateful and happy; another part is uneasy about the possibility of another escape.  People who hang out regularly with cows say “you can’t keep them in.”  In typical optimistic fashion, I didn’t consult those people before I bought cows.  Instead, my thinking was more like “cows will fit into the plan so nicely”, or “I’m sure they’ll like it here and be very glad to hang out with us.”  What could go wrong?

Meanwhile, we kept up the push to get all the transplants into the garden, and make a new potato patch, and plant the tomatoes in the greenhouse. We rearranged our watering system, rehomed the medium sized chicks with their larger flock mates and met the midnight bus in town to bring our baby meat chicks home.  The day came for my daughter to drive to Vanderhoof to pick up two little Tamworth weanlings I had bought to supplement our pig supply.  We only had three babies this year, due to our Original Sow being at first annoyed by, then indifferent to, and now tolerant of but still not mating with the young boar. One of the new ones was a gilt (unmarried female) so if necessary she would be a back-up sow.  She’s the same breed as the boar, but unrelated.  The other pig was a barrow, which is the steer of the pig world, so his destiny was the freezer.  We are by no means hardened to our role in this macabre homesteading dance, where you essentially fund a petting zoo and then suddenly sharpen the knives and get out the 22.   Still, we know we’d rather be awake and aware as we make choices for other beings.  We have consciously chosen this complicity.  It’s plenty weird knowing you are eventually going to kill an animal and eat its meat, but is it weird to love it and delight in it in the meantime?

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Evening was drawing in by the time the piglets arrived at their new home.  They seemed so small!  They’re a full eight weeks younger than ours, and all pigs are territorial, so we had to fashion a separate pen for them where they would be out of harm’s way until everyone had a chance to get used to each other.  We knew the Original Sow would love them soon enough, but they’d be in for some rough treatment initially.  Better to house them alongside the others, where they could hear each other but not mingle.

The pigs lasted longer in their enclosure than the cows had, by about fifteen minutes.  Just as my daughter and her boyfriend were about to leave, he spotted the babies out in the communal area of the barnyard.  The chase was on!  In hindsight, it made no sense at all to chase two scared piglets into the bush, but instinct does kick in.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before the pigs separated and one dived across the road and down toward the river.  I, who was still swimming in the Bliss Medicine of All-Knowing that kissed the tip of my nose in Ireland, was freaking out at a more discreet pace.  I was still back at the barnyard when I saw the second piglet over near the Big Field.  I took my eyes off her to fasten the gate and she was gone, presumably out toward the Wild.   I heard a loud honk and a screech, and hurried down the driveway in time to see the first piglet running back to our side of the road, nearly hit by someone going home from the rodeo grounds.

It’s all very funny now, in that slapstick sort of way a pig chase always is.  I didn’t see most of the following, since I was fighting my way through dense bush, fierce with adrenaline, sticking to the overgrown trail beside the road, mostly so I wouldn’t get hopelessly tangled up and lost, and trying to gauge where that piglet might squirt out, not that I had a plan.  I strained my ears to listen for his panting.  He grunted with every breath, the poor little guy.  And the grunts were getting louder!  There he was!  I lunged and felt his curly tail slip through hand.  Fortunately he swerved and headed downhill again, toward the boyfriend.  Bea the dog, untried as a tracker, turned out to be of huge value.  She simply followed him, and drove him into our largely accidental pincer movement, the pressure from above and below and my daughter providing a rear guard.  The pig apparently backed himself into some saplings and Bea blocked his exit.  My daughter had thought to grab a hay net, and the boyfriend CAUGHT THE PIGLET.  I scrambled toward the horrible squealing sounds, calling “don’t let go!  Don’t let go!” and pulling off my plaid shirt to cover his eyes.  We carried him, all fifteen or 20 wild and squirming pounds of him, back to the pen and untangled him from the net.  We locked him into his travelling crate, leaving him food and water.  He thumped and growled, but we hoped he’d drop off from exhaustion before too long.

That left the little girl running around in the dusk, soon to be darkness.  I felt so badly for her.  Why did we panic and chase them?  Surely that was worse than letting them wander off?  And the second escape in a week was not helping me feel like an actual farmer. The young people persisted in the search, using flashlights and headlamps but I knew it was likely futile.  “Yes,’ they said, “but one miracle makes you hope for another.”  Finally, they gave up and went home.  I tried to Shamanically connect with the lost piglet, telling her to retrace her steps and come back to the pen where her brother was.  I had done something similar with the cows, telling them to stay close, sending out what I hoped was an invitation.  I did wonder though, what was in it for them?  Coddling and scratching and treats of salt and alfalfa – or sunflower seeds and watermelon – fresh water and a routine.  Relative safety, and as much autonomy as you can have behind a fence, but ultimately, exploitation.

I did sleep well that night, though I couldn’t help picturing the piglet quivering in the bush while a roving gang of coyotes closed in on her, or maybe it would be that merciless mother fox that has her den just by the road near our place and produces several bloodthirsty offspring each summer.  Still, I had just returned from that remarkable, refreshing journey to Ireland, where I learned a little more about the ego, how bad-mouthing yourself and feeling like an idiot is just as self-centred and self-serving as being grandiose and exaggerating your attributes.   And picturing the baby pig trotting back toward the barnyard and wiggling under the fence the way she’d gotten out, and settling down to whisper comfort through the bars of her brother’s jail cell was even better than imagining her dead and mangled in the dark.  What did I want to give energy to, something destructive and grim, that might turn out to be true, or a much better outcome that I wished could be true?

The next morning when I woke up, I was prodded out of bed by thoughts of how the piglet must be dehydrated since I’d moved his water out of the crate to leave him more room.  First things first, then.   When I got to the pen I remembered my daughter’s plea not to let him out even if I were tempted, so I slid the food and water bowls in to him.  Suddenly, he was loose in the pen.  Oh no!  Oh wait!  he’s still in the cage.  There were two of them.

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I can’t remember the exact order of things, or who made what decision when my daughter arrived, but soon the little pigs were ripping around the barnyard in tandem, grunting to each other and dashing this way and that, checking out all the other animals and food bowls.  It occurred to both of us that maybe the piglets initially were not trying to escape, but there was a gap between the fence boards that they could squeeze through, so they squeezed.  They wanted to orient themselves.  They wanted to know who all these other creatures were.  They were drawn to be with the other pigs, even though they weren’t family.

So we fixed their pen to keep the other critters out, to give the pigs a refuge instead of a prison.  We made a nice little hole in one corner, and then we made a gap in the barrier between that pen and the big pigpen.  The little pigs spent all that day running around.  At one point they took a nap in the goats’ open stall, with the goat family ranged around them, chewing their cuds in unison.  They made several mad dashes into the main pigpen and were chased off, but with waning enthusiasm as the day went on.

Today they napped away the afternoon, and so did I.  The first attempt to lure the cows didn’t entirely work, although they have showed  willingness to follow the grain bucket.  Perhaps if we stop by every day, a time or two, and hang over the fence, the cows will become curious and stop running to hide in the bush when they see us.  Maybe that, or the neighbour and his son will jump on their cow ponies and corral those little dogies.  Either way, it shouldn’t be long before we can turn them into their professionally reinforced pen, which is actually a two-acre field, and soon after that, they get to stretch their legs in the Big Field.  I hope that by the time they are bored with that, we’ll have the option to let them roam more freely.  They’re not moose or deer, but they are ungulates, as are pigs and horses, and I’ve heard you need those to help rejuvenate a forest that has been logged and over-logged.  But that is a topic for another nerdy time.

I wish you all the best and a good night’s sleep.

 

 

 

 

 

Trembling, I Approach

I am sending this long-overdue update from Dublin, Ireland. Counting driving time and visits with family, I will be away from the farm for over three weeks. It’s a bit daft (as they say here) to have left just when the green is pushing up and the buds are about to burst on a million trees. I drove across the Nechako Plateau, God’s armpit, to Prince George, turned south onto Highway 97, and lo! Spring appeared. When I left home, a full six months of snow had finished melting, and it took its sweet time, too.  The Gitxsan have a word “deluga” that means the last snowfall that takes away the snow.  We had at least four of those through the month of March and into April, but when I left the ground wasn’t frozen anymore and the temperatures had risen dramatically from sub-zero to the teens. Garlic spears appeared through the tangle of mulch.  The grass was mottled with little green shoots.  The goats roamed in greedy search for morsels. I was loathe to leave, Irish adventures or no.

Done in by the long drive and the emotional wrench of leaving my girl and the critters and all the happy, dirty chores of Spring, I broke the journey in Williams Lake, wobbling into the last parking spot at a Motel that shall not be named.   The room had everything I needed and one thing I didn’t: a cloying stench that didn’t hit until I’d unpacked and laid my weary bones on the bed. I was too tired to roust out the owners and move to another room, let alone repark my truck, so instead I turned the place upside down, pulling out the furniture and searching for the dead body. Tracking the foul smell to the kitchenette, I laid a bath toweI over the drain in the sink and slept like a child.

The next morning, I fixed breakfast without disturbing the towel, and ate on the stoop, watching the sun rising in the pale sky and the traffic building on the highway below. I drove through Clinton, turned right onto Highway 99 at Hat Creek Ranch and ten minutes later was hit by the candy scent of cottonwoods bursting into leaf. (The sap in the sticky buds is used to make Balm of Gilead, soothing to dry skin and any kind of superficial wound.) I drove through the greening hayfields and crazy rock formations of Pavillion and Fountain, over to hot dry Lillooet where the Saskatoon bushes were in bloom, followed a couple of boxes on wheels crawling slowly around the curves of the Duffy Lake road, which descends sharply down to Lillooet Lake and winds through more tall stately cottonwoods through the Lil’wat and Coast Salish village of  Mt. Currie (named for the huge peak that watches over every angle of Pemberton.) The sky was that fresh spring blue, the air was warm and the range of tender greens was breaking my heart.

Obviously there’s been no gradual transition for me this year, as the new grass pokes up through trodden mud and old straw and threatens the garden beds. No slow awakening into Spring as the snowpack melts and the cold breezes die down. Instead, a steady, determined flurry of planting seeds for the greenhouse, writing chore lists for the young people to tackle while I’m away, ordering lumber for fencing and stocking up on pig food.  This year I bought sacks of forage seed – barley, peas and oats – for planting in the pigs’ muddy winter paddock now that they can roam into the far fields in search of tender morsels to augment their fermented porridge. And here I am in Dublin, embarking on a 12 day tour of the sacred sites and Irish pubs. Here the grass has already been mowed two or three times, said the taxi driver, and lambs are all born.  The forecast for this weekend is 22 C and humid.

Speaking of pigs, we realized the other day that our Original Sow is quite probably pregnant. It’s hard to tell; a body as large as hers can hide 10 or 12 little beings growing inside it, so we can’t be sure, although she’s swaying a little more when she walks, and  Kitsune is more attentive than ever, nuzzling her gently and pressing his snout against hers, making tender little grumbling sounds.  The fact that she allows this is the biggest tell, we’ll know she’s close to birthing when she’s suddenly busier and crabbier than usual and taking extra pains with her sleeping nest.  We don’t know if she’ll warn the young pigs away, or banish the boar but they all listen to her.  If she wants privacy she’ll take it.  Then it will be up to Emmylou, and luck and circumstance, how many piglets live or die.

The last litter was born in frigid January to her daughter and the new boar, both teenagers. I think they conceived in the first possible five minutes, because their babies were born well before the parents were a year old. There were several feet of snow and no way to separate the new mother from the other adults – her husband and her mother – so my only choice was to trust the pig family to work it out.  They did.  The piglets had their creep for as long as they needed extra warmth and a safe place to sleep away from the dangers of being squashed by adults 150 times bigger than them.  They were strong and lively and worked as a unit, poking Mama’s face to wake her up so they could nurse (bobbing from breast to breast like Marimba players until they each claimed their favourite). Emmylou would spoon her daughter and fend off the annoyingly amorous boar with stern grunts. He seemed to ignore his children until they got older, like other fathers I have known, but he didn’t threaten to harm them.

It’s beautiful to see them as a family. Kitsune and Celeste are competent parents and get along fine, but it is touchingly obvious that Kitsune is in love with the Original Sow, Emmylou. All winter she has seemed indifferent to him, even irritated by his attentions. Perhaps it was because he was still adolescent, and a lot smaller than she is. Perhaps it was because she was somewhat depressed, or maybe she was in semi-hibernation. (Pigs are fairly closely related to bears, which is probably why the horses were scared of them initially.) Whatever the cause, Emmylou often wouldn’t get up for breakfast and Kitsune would nudge and pester her until she got to her feet, grumbling. It was not until the snow left, and the grass started to grow that she seemed to cheer up, and I’m sure it’s partly about being able to get her exercise. The pigs love to leave their paddock and get out to forage and sun themselves in the fields. They leave rather large rumpled patches of turned-up sod, which at first glance ruins the pastures, which incidentally are beginning to be dotted with baby evergreens and wild roses. Are we ingenious enough to embrace these natural behaviours and perhaps turn them to the mutual benefit of all the Beings on the farm? Time will tell.

On the morning the Young Sow Celeste gave birth, I went out to do the chores and saw  three pairs of beady little eyes peering out of the bedding. It was 35 below 0 Celsius, and frost limned the whiskers and back hairs of the Pigs.  The top inch or more of the bedding was icy. Celeste herself had been one of only two survivors of Emmylou’s first litter. I was nervous. Celeste was eating her porridge, and seemed oblivious of her children. I gathered them up and took them into the kitchen to nestle by the wood stove, and then went out to build a “creep” which is essentially a box with a heat source that will warm the babies but not cook them, that has an egress so they can run in and out at will, and that is sturdy enough that the adults can’t rip it off the wall.

Once I had done all I thought I could, I returned the babies to the pen and “showed” them the creep by essentially tossing them into it so they would know it was a warm place.  I tried to get Celeste to lie down and nurse them. At that point, probably disoriented and tired from birthing, she preferred cuddling on her belly with her own mother, from whom she’d never been parted and who nursed her well past the age of four months. Most piglets are weaned by their humans at six to eight weeks, some as young as 4 weeks, so that the mother can be impregnated again, which usually happens within a week of weaning. In the commercial world, and indeed in any profitable hog operation, sows need to have two litters a year to be considered worth keeping.  I am experimenting with letting the mother decide who to nurse and for how long, and when to allow the boar to mate her.

I hovered over this new brood,  nervous that these piglets would die from a lack of colostrum if they didn’t nurse soon.  But, as my kind neighbour hinted gently, what if my presence in and around the pen was bothering Celeste, though she was too polite to show it outright? I forced myself to leave, and only check on them from a bit of a distance every hour or so.

That night, in the wee hours, I woke up and crept out into the freezing cold, in the dark. I climbed into the hayloft and lay on my belly, looking down into the pigpen. There, by the soft red light of the heat lamp, lay three big lumpy shapes half buried in the hay, steam rising off them, and three little shapes vigorously nursing, their tiny grunts and slurps reaching my ears in the still night. How much sooner might the family have settled if I had more confidence in them?

We may have just been lucky that Kitsune, the boar, refrained from eating his young, and miraculously the piglets weren’t squished. Or you might say we accidentally provided Celeste with the ideal conditions for a young sow to successfully parent within a family structure in the mutually beneficial family nest.  Getting out of the way and allowing these creatures to figure things out for themselves can be a little nerve-wracking, but the only way to find out what they prefer and what they’re able to manage is to accept the risks as you see them and only interfere if you’re sure you should.

The more I think about what sustainable means, and why it matters so much that we can refrain from interfering with the cycles and interdependence of natural systems, the more I realize that we can’t recreate these cycles artificially. Neither can we do without them. Those are the hard lessons of the world we’re living in right now, and why the future seems inevitably dystopian. Would it really be that hard to learn to slow down, and figure out our rightful place in the order of things? Is it possible to rewild ourselves and the lands we’ve wrecked and ruined by taking too much and moving too quickly? Weighty questions that I now have the great good fortune of being able to ponder as I get right up close to the land, and the creatures and other growing things. And the weather, and the seasons.

Since the equinox I have been waking earlier and not minding. It’s all about retiring when it gets dark, if not before, not that I always manage it. If you essentially live outside like we do, you notice phenomena that you might have missed when the artificial light, and the noise and bustle of city life distract you from much of what is happening in the sky. I’m referring to the travels of the moon, and also to the rate of increase of the daylight hours after the equinox. I have always paid attention to the moon, and felt its effects, but that doesn’t mean I knew much about it. When I lived in East Van, I noticed that it would generally rise in the east, over the huge cedars across the road, but not always and often I wouldn’t see it at all. I knew that sometimes the moon is visible in the daytime and sometimes the moon and sun are in the sky at the same time. It wasn’t until I’d been living in the North without curtains for a year that I happened to buy myself a We-moon date book and there it was! A chart, showing the movements of the moon relative to the earth and sun as it waxes and wanes through a cycle, and as the year progresses. The moon will first appear at a later hour and in a little different place each night, because its orbit, and its movement across the night sky are in a complicated mathematical relationship with the turning of the earth on its axis and the orbit of the earth around the sun. During one cycle of the moon, it waxes, becomes full, then wanes and grows dark for a couple of days before a sliver of light shows again. This takes 29 1/2 days, not 28 as I’ve always thought. I apologize if I’m boring you; it wouldn’t be the first time as an older adult that I have realized a basic truth that may have been evident to you all along.

As for the sunlight, it seems to me that the rate of increase of light has accelerated since the Equinox and guess what? It has. That’s all I can tell you for now, especially as you probably already know. I do love that sharp little spurt of delight that comes with the aha! of such discoveries, but you’d think a basic education back in the day would have imparted these important facts. I may have been asleep in class, or we may have been learning instead about the main exports of various South American countries: boxite from Paraguay for example.

As the hours of daylight increase, I wake earlier, partly because the chickens do.  Often I can hear the first faint sound of crowing in my dreams, and I know the chickens will be getting restless in their small space.   Change is constant, and we often find ourselves having to adjust our routines. Lately I have taken on the morning chores and my daughter comes after work to do the heavier afternoon chores and say goodnight to the animals, who sleep whenever they feel like it but generally seem to appreciate being tucked up at night with a bed snack and a barrier against predators. In the mornings, my conscience pulls me outside in my nightgown and gumboots to climb the fence and open the door. There’s a great flurry as the chickens, the guinea hen and two bad geese pour out in a rush. I usually stand on the ladder to the hayloft as I reach over to flip the latch, just in case the geese take me for an intruder, which I essentially am, though I think a benevolent one. The other day, I had just replenished the goose bath with fresh water and laid down some soaked grain and was leaving the area when the Original Goose snaked up behind me and gave me such a pinch on the calf that the bruising took two weeks to fade. Who can figure?

One morning recently I woke to a scratching sound that I usually associate with kitty litter. It persisted until I rolled over and still without opening my eyes, stretched my sore muscles this way and that. I’m old, and a few hours burning grass, which is fun and involves a lot of raking – or shovelling pig food into sacks – or heaving hay bales into the loft can leave me a bit stiff.  It has taken some trial and error for my daughter and I to learn to pool our energy and strength.  We need to work together so that we are using both of our bodies well but not wearing anyone out.  One example is unloading hay.  I have found that hay travels downhill easier than up, so I climb on top of the load and hand the bales down to my daughter, who stacks them near the ladder to the hayloft.  Than I climb into the loft and she pushes each bale up the ladder.  I grab the strings and together we roll the bay onto the floor of the loft.   I stack it while she goes down to get the next one.  Building the loft has meant we can store more hay under cover and we can toss it easily to the pigs in the back or the goats up front.

The scratching sound was Po, the black and white perpetual kitten, who slept rough that night because the window wasn’t open quite wide enough and obviously I hadn’t heard her if she’d tried to get in during the night. We are so blessed to be living with all these eccentric Souls, each with their needs and wants, each making use of us as much as their consciousness and our awareness and willingness will allow. When I first sat down to write this, (before I came here to Ireland) Bella the other cat began rasping at me from the floor beside my chair, one forepaw stretched up, beseeching or commanding my attention. I noticed a spurt of annoyance, “I’ve been trying to write something meaningful and contemplative for months now and every time I sit down there are interruptions…I didn’t move to the wilds for this!” and then I turned to look at her, and her clear, deep, pale green eyes looked straight into mine and my heart opened to her. I felt my face smiling as I lifted her onto my lap. I did move to the wilds for this, in fact.

Beneath the north window is a window box just big enough for two cats to lounge in while surveying the barnyard and the woods beyond. Under that and to one side is a wooden stepladder which takes care of the 8-foot drop to the ground. To the east is the other window. The light changes day by day, with the cloud cover and the seasons. The moon follows its set path, now bright, now absent, now shining in one window or another. I bought a moon calendar book, so at this late stage I can learn more about what I’m seeing out the windows, and up in the sky. My night driving glasses are a big help with star gazing. Oh! the phone is ringing. Am I bad to let it run to voicemail?

The animals. I said they were eccentric. I mean that they each have mannerisms, and preferences, and though the lines are blurred between choice and habit (as they are with humans), and though it is difficult to know when we are being anthropomorphic and when we are actually perceiving the being and intent of a creature, the longer I live here, and the more time I spend with each of them, the more likely I am to have moments of peaceful interaction, dare I call it bliss? in the company of animals. It’s complicated, because there are fences. Some of them are even good fences, like the one that has gently pushed the four horses back so I can walk unimpeded and uncrowded (except by the dogs, who are all big, enthusiastic, young and oblivious and though they seem glad to see me twenty times a day, they don’t seem to care that we can’t both occupy the same space at the same time, so there are many collisions) as I move from house yard to barn yard and beyond.

We have five goats living here now, a family of two sisters whose human names are Flora (named for my goddaughter) and Bridget (named for the pagan goddess of spring, and hope). Last year, Flora gave birth to a son, who was maybe, maybe not, destined to be eaten like lamb, his beautiful coat made into a rug, or a hairy drum. There were a few factors pointing him in the direction of the freezer: his maleness, his meat goat sire, and the relative emptiness of the freezer. But then we saw that we could successfully raise really good pork, and chickens, and people came by with salmon, caribou, moose, and venison. The little goat’s beauty cut both ways. There is nothing like the sight of a kid trotting after his herd mothers. He had an industrious gait, his little hips waggling and his head bobbing from side to side; difficult to describe but heart-meltingly cute. We were too squeamish to realistically arrange to have a hot iron applied to his budding horns, and somehow that seemed like a commitment to his adulthood, so we could learn to deal with horns. He began to munch his share of noxious weeds. There was safety in numbers: perhaps a wether in the herd provided balance? Because of this ambivalence, we didn’t name him for quite some time. Eventually we found ourselves calling him Geoffrey, or Darryl, and by the time we settled on Geoffrey, in keeping with our practice of naming animals after people we know, thoughts of eating him had become infrequent.

This year, Flora’s husband was a dairy goat, French Alpine to be exact, and she recently gave birth to twins, Zoe and Zephyr, or Dot and Paddy for short. Named within a few days, horns sprouting daintily (Zoe) and robustly (Zephyr), there’s been no question of eating these skinny rangey little beings. Zoe might one day give us kids and milk, and Zephyr will follow in his half-brother’s footsteps, perchance to be on guard when goats do roam, possibly agreeing to be a pack goat on our hikes up the back. Certainly a hedge trimmer and weed eater, not that their usefulness has to be in direct exchange for our care and shelter, which after all by another name is incarceration.

Right now the view from the east window looks like a National Geographic special: the fields are still yellow-brown, dark swaths marking the path of the hay truck and the chosen paths of the horses during the six months of snow. The goats are drifting by the temporary water hole, where ducks and Sandhill cranes have been landing all week The horses are grazing nearby and the pig family is foraging on the edge of the woods. It’s a bucolic sight, but am I not supposed to be managing the pasture so that there’s something-to-eat for everyone next year and into the future? It occurs to me that we can broadcast a mix of forage seeds in the areas that have already been industriously rooted up by the pigs, and once they’ve trodden in the seeds (non GMO, germination tested, locally grown) we can redirect the pigs to another area that’s overgrown and bushy, and while they’re destroying that place, the legumes and grasses will have a chance to grow. The beauty of it, at least theoretically, is that you can then send them out to feast without having to harvest, dry, store and portion the forage out to them. Eventually we might be able to save some seed but right now it makes sense to buy it harvested, threshed, and cleaned for not very much money.

I know this blogette is ridiculously long, and if you’ve made it this far, I thank you and honour your interest in these things. The natural world is sorely pressed these days. It takes a huge amount of effort and money to lay waste to our planet on the scale that we have, and only extreme greed and obliviousness to our dependence on the biosphere for life, let alone quality of life, could fuel such effort. It takes a relatively minuscule amount of effort and money to align ourselves with natural processes but the difference in mindset is staggering, and that really is a whole other post.

Winding Spells

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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.

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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.

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The Tender and the Absurd

OPR_SidinaFall already!  October 15th, 2017 to be exact.  It’s a rainy foggy morning like many others lately, but the sun often burns through for a glorious few minutes or hours in the afternoon.  It’s Monday, so my daughter is back at her job and I’m here on the farm with the Hundred Souls or more.  The birches and alders and aspen are holding onto their golden brown leaves, but all it’s going to take is one good blow from the east to send them all flying.

I used to feel uneasy whenever the wind came up.  I could never be sure what the damages would be.  Nothing like the disasters our friends and neighbours around the world are dealing with, not even close.  But still, when the tarp roof is ripped off the little hay shed, tearing all the grommets out, and the rain starts up, or the plastic cover on the greenhouse where we’re sheltering chickens is whipping the wooden frame with a sound like a volley of gunshots, or the rain is pouring through the holes in the metal barn roof – holes that the ravens pick at and enlarge for their own amusement – I would feel nervous, and urgent.

There are times here on the farm when I almost want to give up, when my body is sore and my energy snuffed and my mood dips into the grey zones.  At one point this summer, all I could see ahead of me was an endless wall of work, with no guarantees of successful outcomes.  When we started out here, we had visions of making the farm pay for itself in, let’s say, a year’s time.  We’d be selling excess vegetables, eggs and meat and that money would cover the seed, and chicks and breeding animals and all those building materials. We brought a lot with us, tools inherited from both sides of the family, household stuff, books on every aspect of homesteading, but we really had no idea what it was going to take to get ourselves set up and our systems organized for feeding and sheltering our Souls.

For one thing, the systems need constant monitoring and rethinking as the animals grow and their needs change.  Fifty day-old chicks fit in a box the size of your kitchen table, but at two weeks they need running around room.  They need different food and increasing amounts of it as they grow.  Piglets and goats nurse exclusively, like puppies, until a certain point and suddenly they’re ravenous for solid food, though still nursing as long as their mams will allow.  Little babies of any species don’t challenge the boundaries much, but give them a bit of muscle and they’re flying over or wiggling under walls and fences, or in some cases, blundering straight on through them.

The infrastructure here was put in place about fifty years ago, by the lovely couple who first settled here and built the cabin and barns.  Mrs. Kennedy still lives nearby and she came to visit me in the summer, bringing a loaf of bread and some stories.  The cabin was built with old cedar poles from the original telegraph line that once marched down the valley.   The garden is on the site where a sawmill once stood, and the Kennedys, who raised cattle, brought load after load of manure to mitigate soil that couldn’t hold water very well. Before I learned this, I assumed the soil was alluvial, left behind by the river, or maybe dropped there by a glacier.  Nope.  Just as the forest has been logged, and logged again, and is now mostly deciduous where once it was cedar and fir, the soil has been worked, and altered.

Fifty years is about how long a fencepost lasts, before the part that’s in the ground turns to compost, so that means that it’s time to start replacing miles of fence.  We’re doing it in stages, according to which animals have most recently visited one of the neighbours.  The various species also have a way of getting into each others pens, especially around feeding time.  I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced an infestation of goats, but that’s how it feels when you’re trying to take a bale of hay or a bin of apples out to the pigs and you’ve got nine smelly little heads trying to dive into your wagon and eat as much as possible.  Six are visitor goats, who will still back off when I clap my hands at them, but my own two know me too well.  They’re likely to climb me with their sharp little hoofs, or butt their heads under my arm to get at whatever I’m withholding.

Until my son came to stay for a few weeks this summer, and help me map out a more workable barnyard, the place felt like it was devolving.  No sooner did we kick the goats out of the henhouse (where they gobble grain voraciously and then bloat up like puffer fish) then the pigs would appear in the yard, headed up by 600 pounds of grunting, amiable, but unsteerable Mama.  Next two of the horses would be missing and found hours later, munching the neighbour’s clover, covered in scratches and insect bites from their foray into the woods.  We’d find the place they were getting out, mend it, and then for example the goats discovered that after they’d eaten down enough of the wild rosebushes there was a convenient rock to stand on and hop the fence again.  Or Mama would be rooting around for something nice in the mud and create a breech for the piglets to go swarm somebody’s apple tree.

The Kispiox is one of the last areas where free ranging is allowed by law, which means your neighbours have to fence your animals out of their property rather than vice-versa – but come on!  A few stray chickens maybe, but nobody wants horses in their petunias or goats in their vegetable garden.  But here within the perimeter fence we do need to push the animals outward.  I need to be able to go into the barnyard without being crowded by four horses, or nine goats, or seven pigs. I need to be able to step out of my bedroom without four puppies scratching my legs raw.  My son drew a diagram with concentric circles labelled “mind”, “body”, “house with family and invited guests”, “yard with dogs”, “barnyard”, “horse fields”, and “the wild”.  Or something close to that.  He explained that the reason I felt like I was going crazy was because I was.  Every single boundary was being breached.  Brrrrr!

So after work and on weekends, no matter what the weather, while my son was here, he would stride out the back (not the way back, maybe the mid-back) and amid distant cries of “Hodor!” I would see Very Large Objects being slowly dragged here and there and stacked in various piles.  Pounding and scraping sounds followed, and the ringing of metal on rock and there!  He’d cleared out a bay of the barn and converted it to a sturdy pigpen.  My job was to load the garbage (anything we couldn’t find a use for) and hostile liquids (anything without a label) into my pick-up and drive to the dump, bringing back screws and hardware and loads of fresh-cut lumber from the mill.  We contracted a Bobcat operator who showed up with a bundle of fenceposts, which the men distributed along the grid we’d marked out.  My son would raise each pointed post above his head and thrust it, javelin style, a few inches into the ground.  I would follow and eyeball the line, signalling to the operator to adjust the angles.  It took mere seconds for the machine to pound each post a couple of feet into the ground.

All this new fence made the old part, which happened to be the approach from the road, look pretty shabby.  It’s like buying new jeans, you really need a shirt and some boots to go along with them.  So we weren’t all that upset a couple of weeks later when the bottom gate just plumb fell over one day, taking a whole section of fence with it.  I had to come down to the city, so my daughter hired a couple of local guys and together they knocked over what was left, augered new posts and nailed up fence boards, specially cut and delivered by our neighbour at the millyard, and rehung the gate.  Do you know what a hammer drill is?  I still haven’t seen one but you need it if you want to drill a two inch hole through a cedar post a foot and a half in diameter.  Which you do want if you’re going to rehang a gate.

Some people have been saying (quietly) that they thought maybe we bit off more than we could chew, acquiring the Hundred Souls (106 at the moment, no 105 since Something got the guinea hen the other day) in the first year, but we had plans.  Good plans.  The baby chicks would become laying hens and their gentlemen friends, plus meat for the freezer.  The piglets would grow up to be hogs and feed a few families through the winter.  The goats really are the best lawnmowers of tall grass and noxious weeds, and goat meat is much like lamb, so if you can put up with the burnt-rubber stench of the billy you could end up with a dozen kids from six fertile does, and then there’d be six does in milk if you wanted to learn that skill and make some cheese.  The extra produce from the large garden could be sold at the farmer’s market, or fed to the Souls.

So when things started getting out of hand this summer, what with fences failing right and left, and having to outrun the pigs and fend off the goats twice a day in order to barricade myself long enough to dole out their feed, and getting everything ready for market on Sundays only to serve two or three customers because everyone else had their own favourite vendors, or their own gardens, and not being able to prevent the horses from beating up on Mrs. Pig and the pigs from wrecking the hen house and the goats from eating whatever they damn pleased, and all I could see for the rest of my (vastly shortened) life was WORK and chaos, it took a good sit down with both my grown kids to make me see that laying out money now for fencing was not optional.  Neither was a new freezer, a new washer, a log splitter and repairs to the cook stove.  We needed a cistern, to catch enough rainwater to service the new pigpen and the horse trough, out of bounds now behind a sturdy new fence.  And we needed a winter coop for all the chickens, situated in the barn so all the animals can be segregated and fed safely and efficiently from one room.  But most of all, they pointed out, there was soon going to be a natural attrition of the many many Souls, called butcher time.  And the two year experiment with the six visitor goats would end now, because their owner had no time to come help us build them a warm shelter, and we didn’t need the stress of trying to design and throw something up in time for the deep freeze that’s coming.  Four pigs, forty-one chickens and six goats gone reduces our numbers by quite a bit.

So what about our ideals?  I wanted to grow “heritage” animals, keep them and butcher them humanely, and fill our larder as well as earn some money to help with all these expenses.  But what do you do when only 2 of 10 piglets survive, and when the beautiful heritage chicks you raise are still not laying eggs at 7 months and the beautiful heritage meat birds are going to take twice as long to get to butcher size than their popular but alarming white broiler cousins?  What happens when it rains most of the summer and the garden produces well, but only half as well as projected?  And what about the emotional toll of knowing you’re going to kill off all these Souls before the snow flies?  What about the business of eating meat that was recently an animal you could pick out of the flock, or the herd?  And the resolve it takes to stay calm as you catch an animal and hold it steady for the knife, or wield the knife yourself?  You also need a knife to castrate piglets so the meat won’t have “boar taint”.  You might find yourself kneeling on the neck of your favourite little horse while he’s gelded so he doesn’t plow through the new fence to get at the neighbour’s mares.

“How could you?” say some.  How could I make friends with an animal and then betray that friendship by hurting it, or killing and eating it?    You’ve heard this many times, I’m sure, but how is the responsibility for an animal’s suffering different when you buy meat on a styrofoam tray or produce it in your own back yard?  There are only two ways of ensuring that your meat and eggs and milk are healthy and the animals they came from have been treated as humanely as possible.  One is to do what we’re doing, and the other is to get closer to the source of your dinner and find out how the animals are treated while alive, and how carefully they are killed when the time comes.  Spend your food money at markets and farms that can prove their food is humanely produced, that the vegetables are grown in soil that is building and being nourished, that the animals have happy comfortable lives until that one bad moment, and that the humans who help do the work are being treated well and paid a living wage.      And while you’re at it QUIT bitching about the price of that food.  Most producers are struggling financially and if they’re not, they’re cutting corners somewhere in the care and feeding of the animals and the quality of the vegetables.

This is not to say it’s noble to work for pennies.  I hope that eventually, even soon, small scale food producers can earn enough so they can be fairly sure they’ll be in business next year and can plan accordingly.  Cheap food is a myth.  It’s costing a great deal, in the health of the land and water, in the relationships between land owners and farm workers and between humans and food animals, in order to produce cheap food.  Where did we start getting the idea that food should cost so little?   I’m going to say it was when convenience began to matter more to us than having intimate knowledge of the source of our food.  When we started assigning the labour of growing and tending, and the responsibility for harvesting and killing to others.  When we started turning a blind eye to factory farming and the suffering that goes on when farmers start to cut corners to save money.   When the “bottom line” began ignoring the suffering of animals and degradation of the soil and water and and became solely financial.  Anything goes if you save a buck, have you noticed that?

A lot of people I know and you know have at least flirted with vegetarianism or veganism as a way to sidestep their complicity in these issues.  It’s getting late and I’m going to temporarily jam out of that discussion, but I’ll be back.  Let me just say that it’s not as simple as refusing to eat meat or to use animal products.  Expecting food to be cheap is a systemic issue and it extends to vegetables and grains, sweet things and alcohol and the fake foods that crowd every supermarket shelf in the first world, and increasingly, everywhere you go.  And I can’t rightly say how I got off on this tangent, except I’m always thinking about these issues.  I want to help regenerate this land we are so fortunate to live on, and I want to contribute to food security in this area, but first I have to learn how to raise happy animals and beautiful food without going broke.

Bea Flora and Birdy

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Year in the Life

The colours are incredible tonight in the Kispiox. We’ve had two hot sunny days and now the wind is up and the clouds are drifting in again. Sunset comes so late and lasts so long that “magic hour” stretches out into the evening and we’re often in bed before the colours dim. Tonight as I step outside to bring my laundry in, I do a double-take. The horses are so close, just the other side of the pasture fence, nibbling the new grass that’s appeared since the chickens renovated that little bit of the pasture. They almost don’t look real, or rather they look super-real, every hair and every sleek line of their bodies lit up by the slanting rays of the sun. Away to the east behind them there’s a spot on the mountain where the light still plays long after the valley below is in shadow. We call it sunset but it’s us that are wheeling away to hide our eyes for a time. Goodnight, Sun. Gotta go now.

I start to pull things off the line, tossing the clothespins into an old coffee can. They’re the same style as my mother used, and both my grandmothers: ingenious little contraptions – two carved wooden legs held together with a spring that eventually rusts as the wood weathers to grey.  My work pants are like cardboard, the heavy fabric dried stiff in the wind. I’m proud of them; they’re serious pants and hard to find, cut for women but tough as hell, with a double layer of canvas down the leg. They have deep, satisfying pockets and functional tool holding loops. Most women’s “work” pants are facsimiles. They’re cuter, flimsier, single-stitched and tighter in the butt. “C’mon, Barbie, let’s pretend to work hard!” My pants protect me from barbed wire, hostile plants and animal attacks – affectionate, curious or otherwise. Puppies can scrabble, goats can paw with their sharp little hooves and piglets can chew on my cuffs. These pants have warded off attacks by rooster, horsefly and goose. There’s been much less shrieking on the old homestead since these pants showed up in the mailbox.

Actually the goose has turned out to almost be a disappointment. I thought he’d be the source of many epic stories, culminating in a huge feast. Maybe biting isn’t satisfying when all you get is a beakful of canvas. The first day he ran at anybody who came near. He flapped his wings and hissed and snapped his beak. If you offered him something to eat he’d bite you. If you pointed out the little swimming pool you rigged up he’d bite you. If you turned your back he’d come up behind and bite you. I was about ready to order his execution and be done with it. We’ve got better things to do than dodge a goose all day.

But then, quite suddenly, we were best buddies. It’s like he figured it out overnight, hunkered down with all the lower-class poultry, the unfriendly hens, one of them broody, the rooster miffed at his presence, the hysterical guinea fowl I call the Triplets of Belleville. Aha! I imagine him thinking. She’s got the keys to the cupboard! I should be nice. I’m still a bit mistrustful, and I keep an eye on him, but it’s working out for both of us. He follows me around all day and we chat. I’ve learned that he’s a purebred Pomeranian Saddleback, and I’ve been working on an arranged marriage for him. His future wife is still a gosling at home with her parents, so he’ll have the summer to settle in before becoming a family man.

Speaking of betrothals, our little boar has arrived and is slowly integrating with the other piglets. Mrs. Pig isn’t so sure. She’s accepted her other three foster pigs but it’s different with this one, and probably his testosterone is a factor. We hope she warms up to him in the next few months since we’re hoping to found a dynasty with the two of them and a few other brides once we can make the space. Kitsune is not the most likable pig at the moment, but if you were a 50 pound youngster getting tossed around by a 600 pound territorial beast and negotiating constantly with five of your contemporaries, having been separated from your Mom recently and hauled for 12 hours in a dog crate in the back of a Ford Ranger, in the heat, you might be a bit irascible yourself. We’re patient. The last three foster pigs were wild and scared to death when they got here and now they come running and flop down for belly scratches. We start with casual bits of apple tossed here and there and move on to extra bowls of oatmeal. My mom calls it cupboard love but it’ll do.

The way to the hearts of most sentient beings is through the gut. The goats are a prime example of this. They are also dopamine in action, right before your eyes. They will go through any barrier, and thank you for the challenge, to get at some grain.  As it happens, grain, though commonly fed, is not good for most animals – certainly not in quantity – but goats don’t know this. Goats don’t care. They’re full of dopamine and they’ll persist beyond belief to get what they want. The trouble is, just as with humans, when they’re bloated up from eating too much of the wrong thing, they can’t ruminate well. There’s no cud to chew. The serotonin doesn’t have a chance to kick in properly. So they’re all “gotta have it gotta have it gotta have it” and not nearly enough “aaahhh, there it is!” And then their memory for the treat persists, and they’ll chew through wire like Birdy did when she decided she wanted to sleep rough, or pounce when your back is turned. They’re into flowers in a big way, too, and anything that grows in pots on a porch behind a gate.

On the day that Flora went into labour for her little buckling, the same day that Bella the cat was paralyzed and in a coma after having a fit, I decided I’d better have Flora close, so I banished all the chickens (Guz and the Triplets of Belleville – three guinea fowl that screamed all day until we figured out they’d get separated and would panic and couldn’t hear each other over their own cries so we’d have to go out and herd them closer to each other – had not yet turned up to live with us) and was leading Flora into the chicken house where I’d put down some fresh hay. Birdy was right behind us and pushed her way in before I could shut the wire door. She made straight for the barrel which had one bag of feed, nearly empty, in the bottom. I ignored her because I was checking Flora out and wondering whether my preparations were adequate. The vet is many miles away, and I wondered how much help she’d really need with her first birth. There came an absolutely unique noise, and I’ll bet none of you has heard it yet, the unmistakable sound of a full-grown goat falling into a big heavy plastic rain barrel head first. The only way to get her out was to tip the whole thing over. Goats don’t know embarrassment and as quick as a flash she was on her feet with her head buried in what layer mash was left.

As for Bella, that cat lingered. She’d already been partially paralyzed for a few weeks and I’d thought she was at death’s door the whole time. Some days she’d lap a little water or even eat a bit of meat, and other days we’d syringe in enough water to keep her throat lubricated. I don’t believe in man or beast dying of thirst. I slept with Bella in my arms night after night, sending her love and gratitude for all the years of eccentric companionship. One day, I offered her some oolichan oil. She put out her tongue and lapped at it and she’s never looked back. A week of oolichans until we ran out and then tuna and now she’s back on her regular all beef diet – because a house cat would normally catch and kill some beeves for the freezer. Another month later and she’s gained back nearly all the weight, got her balance back and the use of her limbs. Her back end is still a bit wonky but I just shake my head in amazement when I look at her.

As for Flora, she was just fine. I checked on her every now and then and at one point I peeked in and she had a little white spotted baby in the straw with her. I watched until it was clear he was nursing and I watched to see if she had another one in there. The internet told me how to check her tummy and it wasn’t that different from when Bea had her puppies and we could feel there was one more in there so we slept on the floor beside her til he came. I could tell there was nobody else in Flora’s middle, which was a shame in a way because we’d left both goats with the neighbour’s billy for weeks and thought maybe we’d get a couple of sets of twins out of it. I think actually Birdy is probably gay and that’s fine too. I agree with the hatchery lady that “Every peep must earn her keep” but they don’t all have to produce meat milk or eggs. Some are Great Teachers of Humour and Tolerance.

The internet, as all of you know very well, is a mixed blessing but if you combine it with your own intuition, logic and values, you’ll find some bit of advice or a diagram or a definition to help you out, whatever your question happens to be. I ignored all the sites where somebody said goats didn’t have a clue and you had to stick your arm up inside them to make sure everything was going according to plan and the ones that said the whelping dog would be lost without you, and looked instead for the sites that said “trust her and stay out of it” but outlined what a true emergency would look like and how soon you’d absolutely have to have a vet there.

It turns out that pigs can be something of an exception to the rule of trusting the momma and leaving it all up to her, and the story (a tragedy in Three Acts) of the first litter born here on the farm has been told already. It’s such a shame to think that sometimes animals actually die while you’re learning what it is you need to know, that all the advice on the internet doesn’t help if you’re on your own and scared to climb into the birthing pen with a huge pig you haven’t been acquainted with for very long, and the piglets are already born in the night, already chilled and can’t seem to find their own way to the crib with the heat lamp, nor latch on properly to their mother’s life-giving teats.

I have noticed that in the pig raising world, the sows are deemed to be either “good” or “bad” mothers, which of course happens to people all the time too. A good hog mother knows to get up really slowly and lie down really slowly to give her tiny babies time to scurry out of the way. She grunts and calls to them and pushes the litter into a squirming ball in front of her with her snout as she’s lying down. So just because eight out of ten piglets are dead at the two-week mark, it doesn’t mean she’s a bad mother and should now become sausage while we try out another sow. It means we have to learn fast and be prepared to be a lot more helpful next time.

It still feels strange to say “next time” or “next year”. I live in fear of running out of money before we can see a return on our investments, before the farm begins to pay its own way. I also have fears about my own energy, how it can just plum run out sometimes and it’s like waiting for the well to fill up again when you accidentally run it dry. We have just celebrated our one-year anniversary here, my daughter and I. We have a lot to be thankful and grateful for and a lot to be proud of.

The people around us are probably our greatest asset. We don’t see them much; everybody’s busy all the time. But we know we can call on them, and they on us if help is truly needed. We even fit in a little social time here and there, although we often combine that with a trip to town for supplies. No, the winter is not a time of leisure and cocooning but it’s busy in a different way. We have both discovered talents we didn’t know we had and find joy in making sense of all that happens, pleasant or less so. If we weren’t here virtually all the time we would miss out on so much, like watching our grumpy Mama Pig nursing her own huge babies long after the point they’d be weaned in any commercial operation, and after about a week, allowing the foster pigs to nurse too. These three, supposedly only two weeks younger than ours, and from the same farm, were roughly half the size of ours. They had already been weaned at six weeks and had been shipped a hundred miles to our place, which involved being terrified for about three days, scared for three more, and then okay, especially after being accepted into the litter. I would expect all that to set them back, and they are gaining now, although slowly. I wonder how it’s going to go when everything can happen right here, and nobody is shipped anywhere? We still think our sow farrowed early partly due to the shock of being moved while pregnant.

Mother’s milk is unbeatable and we intend to let all our animal mothers nurse their babies as long as they themselves want to. For financial reasons, as well as timing for the weather, most people want those piglets outta there so the sow will come into heat again right away and they can fit two litters into the calendar year. We’re thinking on this, and many other dilemmas that deserve some time and patience before we fall into step with what “most people” do.

I was going to tell you more about the role of the male animals on the farm, and all we’ve learned about castration so far. There’s a story in how the little stud colt only had one testicle and we had to wait and now he has two but the mare might already be pregnant by him, and the vet doesn’t want to do the deed until early fall because flies. And the part about how you really have to learn to castrate piglets yourself, and do it when they’re super young both to get it over with and so someone has a hope of holding them still so you can be quick and accurate and yes, get it over with. I was going to further tell you that although we try to be conscientious and do things “properly” a very sneaky young German Shepherd has confirmed that Bea is in heat again and because he managed to run off with her (or she with him), he’s obviously smarter than we are so perhaps he is a worthy dad of her next litter after all but she’ll have a spaying appointment two weeks after she weans this next batch. If she’s pregnant. And no, we’re not running a puppy mill and thank you for not being judgemental. Bea will be fine and so will we all.

I was going to tell you more about all that, and about our first real garden and how it’s finally starting to produce, but doesn’t this mean we’ll have to freeze and can and dry a lot of stuff if we don’t really start eating out of the garden til late June or early July? And I’d like to say more about the wonderful people we are meeting, gradually, here in the Valley and roundabout, but it’s getting late in the day and I’m expecting a visitor from Whitehorse any time now so I’d best get the dishes done and think about lunch. So until next time we’re sending out lots of love from the Hundred Souls and counting. Two women, two dogs, three cats, four horses, nine goats, seven pigs, three Guinea hens, sixty-nine chickens and a goose. Four ravens and a bunch of songbirds, a colony of meadow voles, a litter of foxes…and so forth.Kitsune with sister June'17

The Dark Side of Everything

piglets     The wind came up last evening, blowing stronger and gustier all the time.  I had just pulled up in the truck, loaded with 1100 pounds of pig porridge (ground-up oats, barley and peas).  Buying it like this, in a big cloth bag which you then unzip so you can shovel the contents into a large number of little bags, is a million times cheaper than going to the feed store.  The best hack for this job is a bucket cut in half width-ways.  Use the top, it holds the sack open just enough that you can shovel quickly.  That bag is still in the truck, bottoming out the suspension, because it was too windy to shovel porridge last night.

     The big chickens were paragliding all over the barnyard.  I gave them the option to go in the henhouse and some of them took me up on it, though the wind was whistling through the hole the goats made when they used to live there too.  I started in on a fruitless search for the staple gun.  I thought it could be in the greenhouse.

     The chicks live in one end of the plastic greenhouse, and though we tried to think of everything to guarantee their safety and comfort, the noise of a howling wind cracking the slack in the plastic was daunting.  I crouched there beside the little birds, only a cobweb of chickenwire between us, and sang to them the song that I brought them home on.  “Angel Band.”  It’s our signal.  Big Chicken is here, and will stand between you and danger, starvation or thirst.  I have a black and white Norwegian sweater that helps out with this illusion.  It makes me look and feel like a giant Barred Rock.  The chicks are still too young to know I’m only their foster mother.  They themselves are light-complected, a robust breed called Sussex.These are the same chicks who spent an extra night in YVR and arrived chilled and shocked, a very long five weeks ago.

    In that period of time, we have weathered a number of difficulties, beginning with the dogs harassing the rooster to death while my back was, unfortunately, turned.  I took on a new hire with no experience, and Bea the dog, teenaged mother of four, went back into basic training:  “Chickens are for protecting, not for playing with.” Two of her puppies went to their new homes here in the valley, and we acquired a pregnant young sow, who farrowed one night a full ten days sooner than our earliest expectation. Most of the piglets have died.

     As I began this writing, we still had 2 males and the wisdom is that they be castrated very early so the procedure is not complicated and later, much later, after a beautiful life in the great outdoors with their family, when they cease to be hogs and become “pork”, their meat will be sweet instead of strongly redolent of “boar taint”.  Our neighbour has agreed to teach us how to perform this simple, quick, and not painless procedure.  The castrating of pretty much every male mammal born on the farm is one more task that had not necessarily been top of mind when we began our pig keeping adventure.

     We saw the boy piglets wrestling like puppies in the sunny straw the other day.  We see how the sow, Emmylou, (or “Mrs. Harris”) adores her offspring, and snoozes away most days with her belly warming against the heated hideaway where the piglets can go to avoid being squashed accidentally.   Which has already happened to two or three of their siblings.  So yes, most of the litter has, in less than three weeks, died of various causes linked to her early, night time farrowing and our relative ignorance.  We have learned a NUMBER of difficult, harsh lessons from this experience.

     We wouldn’t transport a pregnant sow again, for one thing.  Especially not in the cold, even if it was only a 90 minute drive.  Pigs are susceptible to something that used to be called, quaintly, “shipping fever”.  Emmylou was clearly not well during her first couple of days with us.  We covered her with a horse blanket.  We brought her treats to tempt her appetite.  We built her a wall of hay bales to make her shelter more cozy.  My daughter snuggled with her and stroked her, and caught a wave of her sadness and confusion at not being with her sisters and the boars anymore.  We visited her frequently and when the rare sun came out, she rallied, and came out to bask in her spacious barnyard.  Within a few days she was cheerful, and going for rambles in the pasture every afternoon.  Her appetite picked up, and her belly swelled with piglets.  According to the dates the farmer gave us, we still had a month to get ready for the happy event.

     We have learned that if piglets do not nurse immediately, they miss out on the “pre-milk” liquid, colostrum, which contains all the antibodies they will need in their lives.  Without it, they die.  Piglets also have no way of warming themselves except on the belly of their mam (which places them at risk for being squashed, no matter how careful the mother is), or under a heat lamp that is strategically placed for them in that hideaway I mentioned.  If you think you have another week or two to prepare, one of you could be out of town and the other could come out in the morning to a puddle of piglets and not have the nerve to climb into the hay with the 600 pound momma and get those piglets nursing.

    I have to include these stories, because this is the Dark Side blog, where I don’t try to be amusing at the expense of leaving out the hard parts. There is the whole matter of eventually killing the animals we have nurtured with our heart’s blood, but first we have to get them to maturity, and that is keeping us so busy that we don’t really have time to think about what it will be like to have their actual meat on our actual plates.   I also have to say that the piglets are destined to have a relatively short life even if they survive babyhood, and so we will try to let them be happy, mostly by feeding them well and giving them the run of the place, fresh air and sunshine and by not interfering with them too much.  Except for castrating the remaining male with a razorblade in the next couple of days, so you see how it is.  Relentless is what it is, the responsibilities and the unpleasant tasks at times. And that’s not even considering the butchering, down the road when they’re 6 or 7 months old.

     I don’t want any of you whining in the comments about how could I? because if you are reading this blog, you are not faint of heart, and you have an interest in the farming life, and you are trying to figure out how it is okay that you got a human life out of all this complexity.  You are also trying to understand what it is you should be eating to keep yourself healthy for the struggle.  If you do eat meat, you have compassion for yourself, the animals, and the people who do their best to give them a good life before you eat them.  And you are realizing, perhaps not for the first time, what a contrast this is to the way nearly every food animal on the planet is treated during its life.

   Oh, and during the past five weeks, we had other incidents to deal with.  Birdy the goat fell through the cold-frame glass she was dancing upon and gave herself some deep but miraculously placed cuts, which we packed with honey and wrapped in Vet Tape.  I personally fell off the fence (or was swept, more like, by a stray piece of plywood I happened to be perched upon for a split second as I was jumping down into the barnyard:  someone grabbed the other end of it and swung it around, giving me some air before I landed hard on the ice on one knee.)   And, after months of being hyper careful, I also fell down the basement stairs.  My elbows took the brunt but the miraculous Arnica saved me from lingering effects.  That stuff is magic.

     We have so far held two separate sky burials off in the woods away from the barnyard.  The bodies had mounted up over the winter, what with the chickens that couldn’t take the cold before we got the henhouse properly insulated, the baby chicks who didn’t make it, and the mound of shrews mice and voles that Po the Cat has brought in through my bedroom window and left as gifts.

     Actually, I don’t transport the little rodents out to the woods, I feed them to the chickens.  Uh huh, yes I do so.  They need protein too.  Some of it they get through store bought feed and some through bugs and slugs and grubs.  So then the chicken eggs feed us and sometimes the puppies or the pigs.  The goats will soon give birth and after awhile we’ll start sharing their milk with the goatlings, which will also go for meat when they’re big and fat, as will the male half of the baby chickens.  Boys get a rough ride at the farm, no question.  Some of the goat’s milk will go in the freezer in case we have babies in the future who need it.  We are gradually creating a circle of life here, managing the pasture by letting the horses (and goats and pigs and chickens) forage over a thirty acre area.  They all leave behind their nice healthy grass-fed manure, which nurtures the pasture and eventually will go in the garden to feed the vegetables, which we’ll share with the animals.  The pigs will be turned loose to root in brushy, overgrown areas, so we can reclaim more pasture.  The woods will remain the woods, and we hope to reintroduce the wild foods that grew there before the clearcutting that marred this entire area.

     The endless novelty keeps us going, the chance to learn to actually do a thing instead of assuming we’d know how to do it if we ever had to.  It’s crap though when you really want to build something or design something and you don’t have the skill, or the tools, or the stuff, or the money to buy the stuff or pay someone to do it.  So you do it “for now” and then either get away with that for awhile, or deal with what happens when a strong wind comes up,

    Although there are lots of ways to get hurt out here, there is a special kind of vigilance that kicks in when you’re a long way from a doctor or a vet. Even a small cut, like this window-washing injury on my ring finger, can interfere with daily life.  A bandaid gets in the way of any task that requires dexterity, or speed (like typing right now).  Mostly the vigilence, in my case, shows up as a little voice that whispers “be careful, be careful, be careful”… and that constantly checks in:  “okay, where are the dogs? the goats? the chickens?  How is the pig?  How many babies NOW?”  The horses and cats pretty much take care of themselves but the other night, during that big wind, there was a wonderful, musical clopping noise and a lot of whinnying and suddenly there were twenty extra horses in our winding driveway, calling over the fence to our four.  We pay attention to noises, to smells, to fire and smoke, to water.  We have learned to follow up with that little voice if it says to go do something.

     Right now it says to go have a cup of tea.  Right after we finish with that truckload of pig porridge and make the rounds again.