setting eggs by the moon

WhatsApp Image 2020-05-13 at 9.48.07 PM (1)

coming soon…a story about trees and rewilding

It’s a lovely, tender Friday morning in May. We’re up to 16 hours of daylight, and it’s definitely our hardest-working time of year. Planting in North Central BC is not like gardening on the coast, if you’ll pardon an understatement. The gardens are still buried in snow until April, frozen solid — doesn’t this cat get it that I need two hands to type? I am perfecting the loving gaze, eye contact that says “this is not about you but I still love you and will love you always”—and yet, seedlings must be started weeks ahead of the first hint of green in the landscape. Who knew that a south facing porch would be worth its weight? We make do. We have an east window, shelves can be fitted, the view of the pasture and hills beyond can be compromised for a couple of months. I can go outside in any weather to watch the sun rise; I can see it from the bathroom, actually the toilet-and-sink room. The bathtub is downstairs, in a dark cupboard with a spongy floor.

This is week ten of isolation for us. We are early adopters apparently, though not of everything. We let the world test cameras, phones, fashions for five or ten years before we buy. When my head is not full of research on trees, medicines, and dare I say flowers, now that I have a little fenced plot and the goats seem less ambitious (here comes Po for a head massage. Po is my middle cat, whose adventures are mentioned elsewhere, the one who hitched a ride with the horse hauler after going AWOL while I was packing up to leave my beloved East Van forever. Po is currently living under a chair, which is a step up from skulking under my bed all winter, after living rough for six months before that, just long enough to break my heart once again. The heart that must encompass every chick snatched by ravens, every piglet grown and gone to slaughter). Never mind.

I persist in recording the seasons, and lessons learned, and thoughts about the future, don’t I? Telling the meta mind to shut up, that editing before writing is not a thing. Yes of course I know it’s pathetic, spinning one thread of thought into the universe, partial – as opposed to impartial – and incomplete. What is my hope? That some glancing reflection, some remembered scent or sound will link you to me, even for a moment. I hope that, if I sit down every morning (nearly) and follow one of the paths that seems to open up in the dense forest of my thoughts and worries, some benevolent spirit (not a fairy, they can be fun for a time but are essentially malicious, not at all sympatico with the human plight) will reveal a bit of the mysterious web that connects all life, animate and inanimate –for even crystals move and grow, though slowly. Which brings me to my topic of the moment.

Today is a Flower Day, important to know if you’re planting by the Moon. There are incredibly elaborate charts and formulae, informed by immense amounts of study, insight and wisdom and by hearts much deeper and more willing than mine, that could be followed and traced and interwoven with three kinds of astrology and many years of background reading, but I am essentially a practical person who likes to see the results of their daily labour, and who measures their worth in productivity. I like to get shit done. So I pin the chart from the Biodynamic Almanac onto the fridge with a very strong magnet, having folded it to reveal the current month, and I truly welcome its guidance. On a Flower Day, you plant, transplant, harvest, prune or otherwise deal with any plant whose primary intended use is its flowers. That includes the obvious, but also broccoli and cauliflower if you think about it. So today I will harvest dandelions for jelly and vinegar, throw some seeds around in that flower garden that has remained a fantasy until now, and may yet need a five foot chainlink fence around it, and other than that I will take it easy, because leaf days are coming, followed by fruit and then root, and there will be time for everything.

Planting by the Moon is like having a caring teacher at your elbow, whispering instructions that you are free to ignore. There are so many ways to garden, and plan your garden, and order your activities to give every plant the best chance to come to harvest before that first killing frost, which can show up anytime after late August. I enjoy the simplicity of this method, and find I am not as nervous about timing everything, pushing myself and the family too hard, or despairing over the number and variety of tasks and the difficulty of prioritizing one over the other. This way, I can look ahead and see that there’s a root day, say, on the weekend (when my young people, who all have day jobs, might be available for labouring) so the work of digging the new potato patch can be spread out over the preceding few days. I am transparent, I reveal my sources, even to my skeptical Scorpio. I don’t claim credit for “just knowing.” Eyebrows might be raised and there might be a little muttering, but the crew tends to go along with my notions, because the results have been good. Germination is decent, seedlings are generally strong, harvest is fairly reliable. What’s not to like?

The Farmer’s Almanac is another source of unfathomable guidance, though I have no use for the modern version – glitzy, ad-filled, Americentric and lightweight. Still, the internet will reveal “best days” for all kinds of homesteading activities, including starting a diet and cutting your hair. We pay attention to the best days to slaughter farm animals and set eggs. Of course we have no way to do controlled experiments, and obviously many of you are feeling a bit superior about superstitious bumpkins but essentially, why not? In this world of far too much choice, all the wrong kinds of freedom along with the lovely and good kinds, why not respond to an archaic system that still persists? Especially when the teachings are distilled into a colour-coded chart that can be consulted while you drink your morning tea, let the dogs in, or out, and feed the cats, while checking the thermometer, the calendar, and the time. Oh, and the temperature on the incubator humming away beside me here.

After a few rough hatches, some of which you’ve heard about in great detail, it came to my attention that indeed, I could also be setting eggs by the moon. I have an old, beat up incubator that I am somewhat afraid of, since there is no manual and its workings are mysterious. The woman who sold it to me said just leave it set the way it is, it’ll be great, and I can’t even tell you what might have led to my impulse to monkey with the one control but monkey I did and it’s been a hell world ever since. There are no calibrations anywhere, no numbers. Just a lever sticking out of the Styrofoam box, with a little wing nut to tighten it down. Inside the lid is a skinny little heat element and a round thing I have learned to call the Wafer. The Wafer has run my life for the past ten days, and will continue to do so until the eggs either explode or hatch, sometime around May 26th, 2020. This is probably as close as I will get to the lived experience of a broody hen. I am definitely as crabby. At night I have to give up checking the temperature every few minutes and trying to coax the light to stay on just long enough to bring it to 38 C but not beyond –oops, back the other way, oops, dammit! – wtf!! and all the other expletives I read into the broody’s growling when I come near to offer her water, or ask if she’s alright. In the morning, as I check all the vitals of my day, weather, time, almanac and so on, and discover yet another task I can do in my pyjamas – just moving this hose, just letting the chickens out, just fixing this dang latch again – and come to the incubator, I feel either supremely irritated –36.7! this fricking thing! They’ll be congealed in there! Or perhaps 39.4, oh nooooo! They’ll be cooked! or cautiously hopeful – 37.9, not bad! Maybe it stayed there all night and these things will actually turn into chicks eventually. I could take them out and “candle” them, shine a bright light at them and try to decipher what I see in that middle distance where everything is a bit fuzzy with or without reading glasses, which is why I have to do the holding, not the cutting, when we turn boar babies into barrows, but I have not yet learned the art of candling so I’m not sure what I would be looking for. Therefore, I am at the mercy of this thing, or maybe it’s the hygrometer (further hell, there’s a humidity range I’m supposed to be aiming for, though the internet varies on its exactness).

There are 36 of my hens’ finest eggs in there. On a good day, when I remember to set up the obstacle course on top of the incubator and the cats haven’t knocked the control, which I have given up tightening down because it seems to move the Wafer inside and the only time I feel free to check on the Wafer is when the temperature is too high and I need to lift the lid to let some heat out, which is also a good time to roll the eggs around like a conscientious broody would do, and I usually get a vicious little burn from the element – on a good day I might only have to adjust the temperature 20 or 30 times. Tempted I might be, but I can’t give up on my foster chicks; what if they’re tougher than I think and are somehow developing just fine in there? Again, I could candle them, but that would involve opening the damn incubator repeatedly and why would I introduce more complications? I’m as scared as you would be of exploding eggs, the mess, the smell, but I can’t lay awake thinking about it. My night worries are fully booked with the Pandemic and all.

Just when you thought I was at an end of explaining the complications of artificial broodiness, which are taking place while we plant the garden–by the Moon, but the moon doesn’t dig or turn the compost– build another coop for the meat chickens, haul in wire and posts for their fence, calculate a formula for their feed; order supplies that might never get here, like a drip irrigation kit and a new thermostat assembly for the incubator, yes; plan a trip to fetch the auxiliary piglets; plant and coddle 29 nut trees and berry bushes and tap our feet waiting for the orchard trees to show up – I need to tell you we received 18 Icelandic Chicken eggs in the mail. I carefully timed my order to correspond to one of the Best Days for Setting Eggs, so more teeth gritting. There was a slight misunderstanding and the eggs arrived two days later than I thought they would, so if I wanted to stick with the Moon, I couldn’t give them the full 24 hours to settle after their journey.

The whole point of this exercise was to calibrate the incubator with our eggs (callous, callous) so I could try again with the Icelandics after the Ravens fed the last of my three precious surviving chicks to their big-beaked ravenous young. Last night, under cover of darkness, which meant staying up three hours past my bedtime, we slipped an even dozen under the broody, who has remained broody for weeks already because every evening we stole the eggs her sisters laid in her nest. Actual broody hens are a whole other saga. The remaining six eggs went into the unreliable incubator. I have no idea how I will keep 42 potential chicks at 38.0 C while I install the new thermostat assembly, but that is a problem for another day, as is “lockdown” for the eggs that are 9 days further along. Maybe someone else will go broody in the meantime, and I can exploit her desire to become a mother. Callous.


I have enjoyed the luxury of this time with you, but my Flower Day will not likely be onerous, especially because my daughter has the day off and we’ll bumble through it together. I hope you are keeping well and finding reasons to be optimistic about the chances for a better world ahead, for all of us. Let’s hope the big meat packing companies and factory farms are forced to break up, and the far more sensible and healthy family farm model wins the day. Meanwhile, let’s all soldier on, stick up for the persecuted and fight for the rights of all people to a decent life.



Love’s Labour

Early May 2020. Beltaine, when we celebrate the union of soil, water and sun. Some years, excited, we leap over bonfires and drum until dawn. Other times, like this year, we light one last fire in the kitchen stove and gaze out into the mist and the rain, wondering if the nettles are ready to harvest. People are gathering fiddleheads right now, miner’s lettuce, wild onions. Dandelion greens. Here in the Kispiox, spring comes sometime in April. I’m talking about the last of the snow and the first blade of grass. Frozen kale is a godsend, but something fresh is nice. The market garden on Swan Road has spinach, arugula, radishes. Here in Celesteville, we’re still finding our way. Absent heat and fans in the greenhouse, and a really good place to start seedlings, we accept the three-week lag in production and buy or forage our greens until ours are ready.

The garden awaits! It’s the first year we’ve had enough help to prepare all the beds ahead of time, dig new ones and gloat over the beautiful garlic poking up out of its mulch of canary grass. Every year I fuss over the timing – we get frost as late as the third week in May, as early as early September. The seed packets advise “after all danger of frost is past” but sometimes you just gotta take the plunge. To garden is to risk. The Northern planting guide averages Terrace, on the Skeena estuary, with Smithers where you can’t get corn or beans to mature in the short season. We are somewhere in between, but it’s a difference of 60 planting days. I’m beginning to fall back on the old wisdom, as it trickles into my waiting ears: “when the aspen trees burst their leaves you can go in your garden.” “Wait to plant potatoes until you can stand barefoot in the soil.”


My daughter and I seeded the pasture the other day. We buy bags of oats and field peas from the granary, and timothy. We drive around to the bare spots, the swampy spots, the places where the pigs have plowed, and broadcast thickly. Our grain guy advises sparse, sparse, but this is supplemental spring eating for the eight horses, nine cows, four goats and ten pigs in our care. This year we’re still holding our breath to see what our winter of bale grazing has done. Anxiously, we agreed to let our hay guy harrow the field – but not the other field, we need something to compare it to. It makes sense to scatter the manure and waste hay evenly over the ground, and it also makes sense to leave everything be and let the populations of the soil take what they need, and multiply, undisturbed. All the critters are in the 4-acre field, which was enlarged with a proper fence last year. They will be munching hay for another week, or two or three, while the grass grows in the big field. We’ve never had this luxury before, of keeping the animals off until the grass gets ahead of them. Soon we will divide the big field in threes, and rotate everybody through. The grandest takeaway for me from all that reading over the winter was this: grass that is munched too low and has to regenerate from the root needs to convert starches to sugars and it’s a slower process than when it’s allowed to grow the height of a beer can, and the animals are pulled off when its down to the height of a beer can on its side. Then the grass is regenerating from the stem, which is full of sugars, and it’s much quicker.

I have to say when we went out there a few days ago to fling seed around by hand (one of the most satisfying rhythms there is), I wondered if all that care and worry, all that unrolling of huge bales over the snow had really accomplished what we had dared to hope. Still lots of hawkweed, that thick hairy mat that crowds out anything else, plasters itself to the dry ground and replicates by roots, runners, seed and by every method you use to try to get rid of it. Tug on it? The Hydra awaits you – a fresh dozen heads for every one you lop off. Pour fertilizer on it, since you’ve heard it doesn’t like an excess of nitrogen? It thrives and proliferates. Poison it? Fine, but you wreck the soil for another long stretch of time and your manure is now full of herbicides. Try putting that on your garden. But how about this idea? Ignore it, wait it out, carry on with your thick rivers of hay and your animals at the buffet, pooping everywhere, because a pernicious weed like this is a pioneer species. Nature abhors a vacuum, and will toss seed onto any bare patch of earth. The soil is such that this is all that will grow there. Gradually, it dies and contributes to soil building, but slowly. Extremely slowly! Carry on with your naïve, optimistic bale grazing and see what happens, because it costs little to try, whereas plowing up the whole place and reseeding, although a reasonable alternative, is beyond the budget.

As I sit here with my luxurious cup of coffee imported from far away, and glance out at the greening fields, I can’t help but hope that when I go walking out there today — unmenaced by Firefly and the three big foster-Belgians, because they are cooped up with the cows in the 4-acre field right now — as I go searching for nettles and wild onions on the edges of the bush that we’re allowing to encroach (but only so far!), I can’t help but hope that I’m going to see grass in places that were only buttercup and hawkweed last fall.

There! That’s a little taste of the suspense we live with All. The. Time, as we experiment with mixing our own chicken feed to save money, as we try to outwit the ravens and foxes, fishers and martins and weasels that want to eat our meat chicks, as we learn to plant by the moon, waiting for the right day rather than forging ahead and trying to get everything done at once, as we learn to calibrate the incubator and hope there’s a broody hen ready to take over so we don’t have to raise baby chicks by hand anymore, as we learn to watch for the right time to let the sow in with the boar, as we build the fences higher to keep the bull from the cows, as we learn to incorporate three more family members into our co-isolation pod and strike the right balance of work (92%) and play (but isn’t work fun?)

Our future food forest arrived the other day, a little bundle of twigs you could carry under one arm. Quite innocent looking, until you tallied all the holes that would need to be dug to accommodate them. 35, as it turns out, including those for the future cider orchard, another handful of twigs we’re expecting any day. My son and his girlfriend dug that many holes yesterday, in all kinds of terrain. My daughter and I laid out locations for a collection of forest trees, all nut-bearing, except for the sugar maple, all hardy to this zone, though not native to the West, and a grid of hazelberts, a cold-hardy hybrid reputeded to form nuts this far north. Those will be fenced into the chicken run so future generations of meat birds can feast off their bounty while supplying liberal fertilizer. Surely I can be forgiven for fantasizing years into the future and long after I’ve gone to my rest under a cedar tree, yet to be planted? The new berry bushes, grape vines and some of the fruit trees will reside behind a second fence, but others are at this moment out in the open. More fence to be built, and meanwhile I must bestir myself to cut rolls of page wire into ten-foot lengths, for each tree to gain another barrier against goats, and deer, if any were to venture that close to this crazy little place we call Celesteville, where the animals talk, and everyone tries to get along, and love means labouring together to make the desert bloom.

Rooster Wars and other Chronicles

6 a.m. on an April morning in 2020. The waning crescent moon is rising in the south-east as the sky lightens behind Sedina, Tomlinson-that-still-has-a-glacier, Nine Mile Mountain, the Hagwilget Range and mythical Stekyoden.   Those mountains form “my” view; every neighbour up and down this valley has a dramatically different view. Mountains we can’t see at all loom magestically nearby. It’s as if a giant hand moves the mountains around like chess pieces.

The cat starts one of her stealth moves as I choose between words, pause in the blank spots, drink my lukewarm coffee, which was hot before the dogs wanted out, then in, then out, and I felt compelled to take pictures to prove the moon is actually rising as the sun rises, and the temperature is -2 C – and she plants a foot on the keyboard. I dump her into the armchair (warm, soft, smooth) and she immediately plans her next move in behind my monitor, over the sliding piles of papers (I’ll get to them) and dusty little boxes of miscellanea. She’s very old, it can’t be easy to tiptoe through my garden of detritus.

Now she sulks with her back to me, and I feel guilty, but if I don’t give in I will get these thoughts down and have a few moments left over to enjoy the crack of kindling, Ricardo’s musical crowing, the taste of coffee with real cream. Yes, there are still luxuries to be had in this Covid time.

Through the front window, foreshortened by shelves full of seedlings that, if the day is warm, will spend a few hours outside on the porch in lieu of “proper” lighting and heat mats, the dawn light is hitting Stekyodan, which I can only see because my son cut down a specific poplar tree (which then came to rest on the wires, causing a power outage westward up the valley, and a lenient reaction from the Hydro man because it was our first time. Apparently everyone gets a bye, but after that it’s a $10,000 fine for falling a tree on the line.) That was nearly four years ago, when we first moved to the valley in a flurry of decisions.

Now, during the Great Pandemic of 2020, we are deeply grateful for our smoky little cabins, our calluses and torn fingernails, the mud, blood and (fill in the blanks: mosquitoes, bullshit, frostbite, floods, drought, bruises) – of small time farming. Our lives haven’t changed very much with the isolation. The timetable for hauling dirt and planting is the same, and the days march on the way they do every spring, with worries about drought and the summer grass. We share your dread and worry over the spread of the virus, the ability of the various health care systems to take care of the sick, the loss of elders and friends of friends, and the march of industry while we are cooped up. Life, however, must go on. Would you like to hear some farm stories?

The little bull, Gus, just turned a year old. He lives in the inner barnyard with his own huge bale of hay. Every day the goats move heaven and earth to bust into his pen, usually by worming their way in to the pig pen on the other side of the barn and then climbing precariously over the lumber-and-junk pile that is supposed to be a barricade. Once they are in, they can munch all day and lie about in the sun with various chickens, a habit that the bullito has gradually picked up as he’s settled into his new home. Clearly, though, he’s lonely for his own kind, those eight other little hairy black Dexters he can see out in the field, but I mark off the days on the calendar for him: this many more sleeps until Father’s Day, when he can join his new herd. Otherwise, the calves would be born too soon, into the frigid cold of January or February. Gus could be hanging with the three young steers right now, but they’re all pretty bonded with their moms and sisters and cried and moaned when we suggested a bachelors’ camp. I think they’ll come around. Meanwhile, we keep him close. I like to think his ringside seat at the Rooster Wars has provided some diversion, along with watching the baby chicks in their little side coop. Gus probably doesn’t know how close he came to Freezer Camp. Only a string of unforeseen events, beginning with his previous farmer’s back injury, which led to her putting off castrating him, which dovetailed with our long and fruitless search for just the right baby daddy for our little herd, has allowed him a new career.  There is only room for a sadly scant number of males on a farm, essential though their contribution is.

Meanwhile, the big sows have had too much time with their baby daddy and it appears they may have both put him in the friend zone.  We had unfortunately allowed them all to get Too Fat, so after inducing a reduction in their collective bulk, we have swapped out the ladies for Louis, the barrow (the non-boar I wanted to eat during a porkless phase but that’s another story; he’s still here, our Pandemic Porker, and for now serving a purpose other than ham and bacon). Now that the boys are used to the New Social Order, and the girls are slimmed down, we are waiting to see if and when the heat cycles reinstate themselves. As insurance, I have arranged the adoption of another nubile pig maiden so we will have two lines of Red Pigs – augmented soon by more Black Piglets, we dearly hope – and be able to further contribute to food security here in the North.

The excitement doesn’t stop there. The other evening, during a rampant pig cuddle with her little nephew, my daughter realized that we had missed castrating one of the current piglets. I can’t even. There are only five of them. We counted one boy when they were tiny and castrated one on the day. Since then we have often noticed that he looked bulgier than he should have, but not every day. We have no excuse, except tiny piglets do not look quite so binary as larger pigs, and they wiggle. You never see five little pig butts at the same time. Yes well, I’ll just leave that there. We now have a boarlet-in-waiting, which has led to separate playgrounds for the boys and the girls, reminiscent of my long-ago childhood – when pubs also had separate Ladies and Escorts and Gents entrances.


On the chicken front, after four or five weeks of breath holding we have 3 (update NO! make that 2 after a Raven Raid) survivors out of 16 Icelandic eggs precariously incubated through a bout of -12 in March by a cadre of flighty, uncommitted broody hens. Finally, to my delight, a pretty young Chantecler cross stood up from her nest to reveal three little sparrow-like creatures who are still doing well.  (Two are doing well.  The third is making its way through the digestive tracts of a raven.)  After many tragedies known collectively as “a rough hatch” the other, late-to-the-table broody has one live chick of undetermined parentage but that most important of requirements, the will to live. We shall see. It’s a long and perilous journey from egg to chicken to more eggs, just as it is from seed to harvest when the objective is vegetables.

We took advantage of supremely warm weather last weekend (and this) to prepare the greenhouse and the garden beds. Our goal is to double or even triple the size of the garden this year. It is astounding what it takes to feed a person for a year and now we are six. We would like to be growing for the market, but we are still working on being able to get ourselves through until April or May of the next year. We have a short (though intense) growing season up here. We are scanning the bush for nettles, spruce tips and dandelion greens as the bags of frozen greens dwindle in number. Any day now! Next week, the new consignment of fruit and nut trees, berry bushes, and grapevines arrive. I hope to be able to outwit the goats this year. You don’t get a second chance with goats. Once they have breeched the garden fence, they will ring bark every sapling and core the winter vegetables, like conquering Romans salting the soil. I hope it’s not personal.

Some of you might wonder why we keep such destructive, greedy creatures and it’s a fair question. We don’t believe in killing anything except for food, and we wouldn’t wish the goats on anybody else. Sounds altruistic, doesn’t it? Actually they are excellent lawn mowers and do keep the place tidy and navigable. When we arrived, the weeds in the yard and everywhere else were chest high. Unless we want to buy a mower, gas it up, and weed whack every weekend, like suburban folks do, we need our goats. We just have to get smarter. And smarter yet.

I kind of lied about the killing part, I did take out a hit on those Two Bad Geese as you may recall, but I just made another exception and am still dealing with the karmic fallout. I opened the coop door one day last week to find my sweet favourite rooster, Mac, covered in blood, with one eye apparently pecked out and stab wounds on his head and chest. He was cowering behind the bag of wood shavings, head drooping. Once a rooster’s head is down, you can be pretty certain that death is just around the corner. Many of you have met Mac, with his four-inch spurs, at least on Facebook. The conquering rival was his son, Fabio, twice his size and himself a coward and a quisling, imho. Fabio was the one who was twice given a chance to be under-rooster in the other coop, and twice slunk home to his own ignominious life in his father’s compound, where every day he was chased away from any chance with the ladies. Lately, though, Mac had become more lenient, or so it appeared. Fabio, along with Thomson and Thompson, the twin Chantecler roosters,  had gained a small entourage of one or two hens. In any case, whether it was spring fever, luck, or opportunism, Fabio had come close to patricide. I made a decision, to kill Fabio before he could finish Mac off. There was another reason, besides his unpleasant personality, and that was his sheer size. You need your boss rooster to be small and agile. He’s going to be balancing on the backs of the hens and and you don’t want them injured. The execution, however, could have been carried out with more aplomb and forethought. I stalked Fabio and ended his life in the way we do, by placing his neck under a rake handle, standing on the handle, and pulling up sharply on the legs. Unfortunately, I had not reckoned on his great size and weight, or my own spindliness compared to my daughter’s mighty strength, so it took several tries, but I did persist. It wasn’t pretty. His body was then dragged through the streets of Celesteville and eventually thrown to the ravens. I’m not such a good thrower, and he was heavy, so it took three tries to bring him to rest on the barn roof. No, I didn’t stew him, and I regret/don’t regret that part. I could have set it up as a necessary cull, for meat, but who was I kidding? I needed him gone, and we should have done it during the last cull (remember Ricardo, who also escaped that round? He is still doing amazing in the other coop; he’s got the job Fabio could have had if only he had seen where his bread was buttered. So I like to think I’m the White Knight of animal welfare but circumstances and the decisions we make in the heat of the moment tend to dull one’s armour over time.

In any case, Mac was suitably grateful. “Fanks, doll,” he said in his raspy voice, cocking his head to give me a meaningful stare with his one eye. “I was a goner, for sure.” He will likely never regain his former ascendance; such is the way of the barnyard. He broke one of his mighty spurs in the conflict, and either Thomson or Thompson now lays in wait for him every morning, chasing him off as he ducks out of the coop and makes a run for the fence. Every day around high noon, however, there’s another showdown that so far has ended in a draw. If you’ve never looked at one of those Velvet Paintings with the roosters flying at each other, seek one out. They have the most amazing lions’ ruff around their neck that they fling up when they’re in battle. Stirring! If we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic I would charge admission to see these contests. The dancing and weaving! Mac fights in the style of Mohammed Ali, while the huge Fabio was more of a pounder, like George Foreman. Thompson and/or Thomson is your fairly average scrapper but he and Mac are equal in size – wait for it though. Mac is now back to two eyes and a fighting chance. I’ll keep you posted, shall I?

And now I must venture out into this bluebird day and see how everyone fared through the night. The Mountain Bluebirds are indeed back in town, as well as the jays, the robins and the swallow scouts. The Sandhill Cranes have returned once more, their unearthly cries reminding me of the ancient tale of the Crane bag. But that is a story that will keep for another time.


Lethal Over-reach


Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs Smogolgem (Laksamshu Clan) and Medeek (Gitdumden)


I’m not sure why I’m tired – I slept ten hours – maybe because I was chilled and just now warming up with the wood fires in my little house. It was cold up at Km 4 on the Morice River FSR where we waited with Wet’suwet’en people for outcomes of police action to “remove protestors” farther up the road. Wedzin’kwa is the old name for the river, still so pristine from the headwaters to the mill at Houston that you can drink from it, and that is precisely why we were waiting on this frozen road yesterday, and why the Wet’suwet’en have been living and working, hunting trapping gathering making medicines and, for the past ten years, healing, on the yintah, the territory – to protect the land from further encroachment by industry.  The Wet’suwet’en are still waiting to know the rest of their people, still up at the Unist’ot’en healing centre, are safe.  This time.


Already, the Huckleberry Mine has come and gone, logging continues as it has for decades (but not time immemorial, my lovelies, just as long as the current generations of workers can remember). It hasn’t always been this way. It didn’t have to turn out this way, with industry in charge of government, with foreign-owned companies taking a larger and larger share of the profits and creating uncertain working conditions. It doesn’t have to continue in this way, with governments insisting rights and title are nebulous, undefined, while the Wet’suwet’en, who know every creek and rock bluff, every glade and hillside, and whose system of governance ensures that every individual is part of a clan and born into a house, accounted for and provided for, their genealogy clear. Clan names and chief names pass to the next worthy individual upon their bearer’s death so the names are always alive.


This was the case until very recently, and I’ll take as the defining event, or rather period, the era of Residential Schools, funded by church and state. Colonial governments had established the system and kept the schools filled by sending the RCMP into villages and reserves (because by now people had been kettled by industry and government onto tiny portions of their traditional lands). Families were, in this way, torn apart by grief at the separations. The children were traumatized beyond what most of us settlers’ and immigrants’ children can imagine – although many of our forbearers fled similar purges and militarized incursions onto our own ancestral lands. Incarcerated, every moment of their lives controlled, sisters separated from brothers, their hair was cut, they were dressed in colonial clothes, they were forbidden to speak any language not understood by their overseers. The British sent their sons, and later their daughters, to boarding schools at the age of about six. This is how they trained each generation to be soldiers and merchants, bankers and politicians. Colonialists. Perhaps all this seemed reasonable to the administrators? The intention, apparently, was to force assimilation of the Indigenous people by making sure that the customs, traditions, languages, and hereditary system of governance were demolished.


I am writing this in the moment, from memory. I can’t possibly know all of what went on. We know that smallpox literally decimated the coastal populations of Indigenous people. One tenth may have survived that epidemic. Sharon Pollock, in her play Walsh, intimates that infected blankets were distributed, by factotums of the Hudson Bay forts and by RCMP, or NWMP as they were then, ensuring the spread of this deadly disease to people who had never encountered it. This illness has become symbolic for me, of all the ways in which the people have been attacked, neglected and then ignored and forgotten by colonial governments which spread themselves like a sedimentary layer upon the land, seeking to obliterate what went before. Think of the salmon. Most of you like to eat salmon. Every year the salmon coming up river was a surefire event. The season was given over to catching and preserving salmon for everyone for the rest of the year. The food supply was guaranteed – salmon, game and berries made up most of it. Think of all the ways in which the salmon have been stressed and attacked: they are consistently overfished – scooped up in vast numbers before they can reach their spawning rivers; they are riddled with disease from fish farms (while government scientists look into the camera and tell us there’s no proof that fish farms are the source) and then easily parasitized; their estuary habitats are destroyed by industry – right now the Skeena estuary is being forever altered as LNG Canada scrapes away the places salmon smolts need to dwell in as they grow large enough and accustomed to salt water to commence their long journeys: natural salt flats, and eelgrass beds are destroyed, and accumulations of dead wood – that would naturally fall into the streams and rivers and be carried to the sea if logging practices did not include clear-cutting right to the banks of the streams – are not there to provide protection.


I digress. LNG Canada is a consortium of foreign-owned multi-national companies. Our previous government hitched our economic wagon to that star and the present one apparently sees no reason to alter the course of inevitable events. Site C dam was already in the works, as the premier then vowed to get it past the point of no return. The people of BC do not, in the foreseeable future, need the power it would generate. Ah, but power is needed in order to keep fracking the entire landscape of the North East part of the province – and the dwindling amounts of gas in those thousands of wells, most abandoned after they release their first burst of wealth, are required to power the enormous plant being built near Kitimat -while the Kitimat River estuary is ruined in order to accommodate huge ships to transport that gas to potentially non-existent Asian markets.


If you have read this far, I must be preaching to the converted, which is quite possibly all we can really do. So you will not be wondering why Indigenous people (and their supporters) all over the province, and in solidarity, all over the world are doing whatever they can to bring attention to, and interrupt, what “business as usual” is doing to all of us. Perhaps, though, you are annoyed at being inconvenienced on your commute, or your train journey, or your cruise ship holiday. Perhaps it frightens you that life as we know it is changing rapidly and irrevocably. Maybe you don’t know how you will adapt, and survive, and most understandably, you do not feel ready for these changes, you would rather they didn’t happen quite yet. Most likely, you work in a resource extraction industry, or benefit from resource extraction like all modern people, or have friends and family who do. Your imagination fails when it comes to envisioning what a “just transition” would look like, and so a just transition becomes further and further out of reach as we delay and hesitate at the brink.


This week has seen an unprecedented, world-wide uprising in defense and support of one particular Indigenous people. Many of you were involved in actions to shut down a bridge, a rail line, a sea port. You took time out of your “ordinary” lives to register your dismay and disapproval of a huge, extremely costly police action, involving RCMP militia equipped with all the mod cons like helicopters, night vision tech, and assault weapons – oh, and earth moving equipment – as well as the more usual liaison teams (good cop) dogs (trained to crush with their teeth people’s most vulnerable parts, as happened to our friend’s friend in Vancouver the other day), and many many personnel and vehicles. Bullet proof vests. A heated comfort wagon (rumours of a Jacuzzi but I don’t really think so) while everyone else dealt with sub-zero temperatures down to -37. I have decided to call all of this rigmarole “Lethal Over-reach”. You’re welcome.  But remember that these militarized police forces do not come out of nowhere. We allow them, and vote for them, knowingly or not.


My daughter and I took two days out of our convenient and blessed lives this week, to follow the Wet’suwet’en up into their traditional territory and stand in the freezing cold with many other supporters to listen and witness as RCMP brought the force of a cannon to a doorbell to harass, intimidate and physically drag land defenders and water protectors (watch your language, all you people and all you media: “pipeline protestors” does not remotely describe or represent these people or what is going on) out of their wall tents and off their wooden towers. This police force answers to nobody but the courts, and agent of the crown though they may be, their adherence to the law is questionable. In the context of Wet’suwet’en law they are crass invaders, disrespecting every aspect of Indigenous governance. Although they may, on the ground, appear to be listening to the Chiefs, that is only because people just like you are supporting at least the concepts of Indigenous rights and title that have never been extinguished, and the principle of a free press.


There are other reasons why it is wise and prudent, not just right, to support the Indigenous peoples of the world now and into the future: they are the only ones who carry the wisdom and the knowledge to lead us through the current and coming days. Nobody can guarantee your survival, or mine, or that of our descendants if we have any, but these people know how to resist colonialism, capitalism, the patriarchy and all the ills and evils these systems have brought to biological life, including and especially humans. No matter how much you have read, or studied, or lived alongside Indigenous peoples and their practices, you will not have grasped the complexity and depth of their relationship to the land, and the spirits of the land, air and water. They are the land. Without them, it dies – and without the land, they die and with them our last hopes.


Stay involved. Get involved. Watch, listen, talk, write. Dress up warmly and come on out. You will never feel more alive.

Under a Thunder Moon

I bought some fancy hatching eggs from a neighbour – supposed to be fabulous meat birds…and I stole the eggs that were already under the broodies and put them in my little incubator. Seems like one was precocious. I’m hoping to keep it alive until the others hatch, if they’re going to. I don’t think I’ll be able to pull the old switcharoony on the hens because the ones under them won’t hatch for another few days and if I try to give them a chick now they might walk away from the nest (or kill the chick). It’s all so deliciously complex.

Even after a hen hatches chicks (and she always accepts them as hers if she hatches them) there’s so much variability in her responses: she might completely dote on the chicks and hang out with them until they’re grown, or she might walk away before they’re even hatched. (That’s why we got the incubator in the first place: we started with that batch of Light Sussex who did NOTHING according to expectations and there was some talk about the timing of their hatch, or the fact that they were chilled in transport being responsible for hormone differences.) Some have never laid an egg, others started late and lay erratically. Haha they will earnestly take a turn sitting in the nest boxes but when they leave there’s no egg. They’re adequate moms if all goes well and they produce some chicks.

Then there’s the childhood phase, where pretty much anything can happen to the young.Or they might completely surprise you. We’ve had at least four beautiful moms sacrifice themselves to a fox or coyote and orphan their chicks. It’s crazy what survivors the babies can be. We gad two fluffballs from the same mother left on their own. They stuck together like glue, and survived to grow up. The boy is a beautiful beautiful rooster who is going to get his turn to have his own flock of hens. Soon. The girl lived to produce her own chick, but – as if she found him ugly and ran out of oxytocin, or whatever passes for it in birds,- she abandoned him at a few weeks and “went back to rambling around scratching up bugs and having sex with the rooster” as someone aptly put it. The little guy yelled and sobbed until he was hoarse, trying to regain her attention. It seemed like more than survival to me, I think his heart was broken. And I’ve seen another chick grieve for her mother. She got my attention and brought me into the coop, where the body of her mother was curled up under the roosts. She stayed there awhile; I felt her distress. But then like an 18th Century nine-year-old, she got up and dusted off her figurative hands and got to figuring out the world. She got one of the young Chantecler roosters, forever junior to the tyrant Americauna, Mac, to act as her protector. She shadowed him, or them if he was with his brother, and before long they were letting her roost beside them at night. So she grew up and she is among the hens now. She is a Light Sussex, and I’m interested to see how this generation manages, given the supposedly wonky hormones of their parents.


One more story, and I may have already told you: we keep quite a few roosters. I can’t tell anybody how to do it but it’s working fine. Mac, who came here as a young and callow Americauna (white, with a cream coloured mane), has learned his trade to a T. He’s like a butler in the nuances of how he runs the show. Right now he’s managing 7 or 8 hens, 3 junior roosters, two broodies, 3 half-grown pullets and 10 plump cockerels in the coop next door. Everybody free-ranges and some travel quite far around the farm. There used to be a bedraggled, skinny Light Sussex rooster also living there, his appearance no doubt due to his downtrodden life. In the mornings, Mac likes to send a few hens out, then emerge regally, and dancing a two step because he’s already chosen his morning hen. I can imagine their fluffy butts are pretty attractive. But Mac will always pause a moment and watch the 3 junior roosters make a break for it. He can always get a squawk out of at least one of them.


So everybody free-ranges, and one day I noticed the raggedy white and black rooster (they have black feathers in their hackles, and in their tails and nice big red combs that aren’t well adapted to our winters) had a little red hen companion. A friend of a friend had given us four layers of the production variety, guaranteed to lay an egg nearly every day, big brown ones for your breakfast, and one of these ladies was walking out with Roostie, as I came to call this guy. Meanwhile, I had a dozen adolescents of various fancy heritage breed growing up in the other coop. One day, when we were down to four, all of one breed so that goes to show you who is smart enough not to be snatched by a varmint – make a note of that! and besides, they have compact combs that won’t get frostbite – well, what do you know? Roostie and his wife had neatly moved in on (or with) the adolescents. As Roostie gradually got used to his new situation, his whole appearance changed. He’s much bigger, whiter, fluffier than he ever was. I bought five more Little Red Hens because although there’s lots of entertainment in the hen house, there have never been very many eggs, and hens quit laying (or start laying in out-of-the-way places) with very little provocation. Roostie was now husband and protector for ten hens and the spurs on his legs are four inches long and sharp as a razor.


The saga doesn’t end there, and will probably never end, come to think of it. I can’t stay up-to-the-minute no matter what. I’ll leave you with the arrival of ten more pullets, Columbia Rock by name, and the ten cockerels mentioned above, who are all destined for the stew pot and so get little mention in these dramas. As my daughter says, there are Talking Animals and there are Dumb Beasts and neither is worse or less valuable than the other. I am hatching a plot to bring my protoge rooster, son of Mac and a Light Sussex hen (so you see they are viable, or some of them are) into Roostie’s coop, under cover of darkness of course. You’ve heard me say this before, but when introducing new birds to the coop, we do it at night. That way everyone is at least half-asleep and definitely night-blind and when they all wake up, they think they dreamed the old arrangement, and this is actually how it has always been.


So yes, I hope more of these eggs hatch, that I stole from their mothers, and I hope they hatch soon so the little dirty-yellow chick downstairs can have some companions.  Chicks are so vulnerable.  Every day I count heads, just to honour them all.  I always cry if one is missing.  But then I dust my hands off and get on with it.

Measures of Faith, Margins of Error

January in the Kispiox, and 2019 stretching out before us like a country road. Looking back at 2018 feels like time-lapse in reverse. Christmas has come and gone, whoosh! The Solstice, a family wedding, everybody’s birthday, the mud season, whoosh! Samhain, more birthdays, start of school, the harvest, the drought season, the smoke and fire season whoosh, woosh, woosh!! all the way back to the last time I posted, about the arrival and departure and re-arrival of the faery cows.

It was a summer of second chances. I know you’ve been waiting to hear what happened about the cows. You will remember the neighbours brought them home in their stock trailer, having given up on the usual methods of herding and roping from horseback, and resorting to seduction by oats. The price of the herd’s leisurely stay, besides my deep embarrassment at being That woman with cows but no experience, was a long lecture about my terrible choice of breed and an offer to take them straight to auction. How to explain that I didn’t know myself how it had come to this, but magic and mind moving were highly probable and as tempting as the offer was (it’s only money, and borrowed money at that) I was merely a pawn in the cows’ project to find themselves a new home. No, better to smile and open the gates – to a more secure barnyard, and to adventures yet untold.

One line in my neighbour’s soliloquy on cows, and Dexters in particular, stays with me still – “five-strand barbed-wire fence, zing-tight”. And someone else’s advice “keep ’em close til they know where’s home”. Close to us and the feed room, presumably. In the dread heat of the drought last summer, with a wildfire burning up the road, while the fencers worked their way around the 18 acre field, we worked around those seven beasts, bringing them hay, harvesting their poo, letting the other critters (goats, geese, pigs, skeptical horses) introduce themselves. Taking our time.

I will always be grateful to that neighbour for her kind heart and sharp words because that combination clarifies my resolve about things.  We’ll learn to harbour Dexters, and we’lI do it right.  In due course we were able to open the gates for a few days of clover in the larger barnyard, and then blessed freedom in the fields and woods beyond, and days without any real contact, maybe a sighting in the distance. We would have high-fived if we had the energy. The relief after a prolonged period of uncertainty can be suspect.

This is not to say that the life of the herd has been altogether uneventful. In early September, when I was on my own here, the youngest calf fell through the rotted boards covering an abandoned well. What a way to find out it was there, the bushes concealing it probably cropped back by the goats. Imagine you hear the cows making strange noises and you run out to them and you see that a spot in the field, that wasn’t there until now, has opened up. There before your eyes is a square, timbered hole full of water. Imagine yourself looking down at the calf, plunging and splashing, her eyes rolled back in her head. You are looking at blind, reddish membranes. Zombie cow. The other cows moaning and keening, peering into the hole. You throw yourself flat on your belly and by stretching down, can just touch her. The water smells like a vase after the flowers have died. You wiggle forward, balance on the edge of the hole, reaching for her. She plunges, goes under, comes up blowing. You grab her by a leathery ear, by the jaw. There are old boards floating in the hole and you try to work one under her front legs. But she’s a cow. Now what?

You obviously need help but it’s wonderfully private here, off the road. The nearest neighbours are elderly, the others you haven’t met yet. The dogs and goats have gathered round but you are the only one with thumbs. You are the only one who can decide whether to lie there til your arms give out and watch her drown, or to leave her while you run back uphill to the house, the keys to the truck, an old choker you’ve found useful before when hanging meat, or dragging a log out of the bush for a clothesline. Those ubiquitous cargo straps. Not like you have a list, you just grab what you see.

You bump back across the field in the truck, the gate swinging shut behind you. You don’t need the horses getting out.  She’s still afloat when you get back.  You have her by an ear, leathery, thick in your grip. You’re trying to tie a strap around her head. Like a halter. You’re still terrible at knots (and you don’t know more than 2 or 3 constellations, and have never learned to make creme brulee). Eventually, after losing her once or twice (she goes under, she comes up panting and splashing but her eyes are the right way around) you get her tied, head above water, to the blessed clump of little trees growing beside the hole.

You take a breather. You’ve been hyperventilating for quite some time. You tried to haul her out bodily, belaying. You’ve considered (for a wild moment) getting down and pushing her out. But you couldn’t find bottom by plunging a long pole down, and she’s three feet down in the hole.  It’s still real that you might have to watch her drown in front of you. You need to think. There’s a jar of old tepid water in the truck, and three goats looking for crumbs.  You take a drink, choke on the water in a dry throat. It feels like you’re really short of time.  Someone would surely come if you phoned them, but your phone doesn’t work out here in the field. You need help, badly. She’s so heavy.

There’s only you, however, and you call on the goddess (or was that a swear?) and then you know what to do. Something so obvious that anyone else would have already thought of it. You shove the goats out and move the truck into position. You’re going to haul her out by the head. You’ve hooked that choker onto the truck before, to help your son drag an old olive-green GMC down from the pasture, so he could stencil the family name on its side and one day you’ll plant sunflowers in it; the two of you just fetched a clothesline pole with it. This is your first truck, and you a country girl (having spent the last 40 years in the city), and you’ve used it for a lot of things but never a calf in a well. The choker is a wire cable, with a couple feet of chain on either end. Solid metal hooks, that fit into certain holes on the frame, and somehow you’re on your belly again, holding Fiona the calf with one hand, fumbling to untie her from the bush with the other. How did you even do that? You’ve got the choker hooked under her tangled, makeshift halter. You pray it holds. You drive. Slowly, slowly. You can’t look back, but then you do and her head is above ground. You drive a little more and she is out.

Her family is around her, smelling her. Licking her. You advance toward her, to unwind the orange strap that held, though it slipped and failed at first, and the yellow strap, that broke. She flinches away, and you look into her black, liquid eyes and you tell her to stand, so you can get those foreign things off her, and she lets you. Now your legs want to quit, you want to lie down on your back until you stop shaking. Cry some liquid tears.

But what’s the good in that? You need to cover that fucking hole before someone else falls in. What if she’d broken her leg? What if it were ANY other beast, bigger and heavier than her? What if she’d drowned before I heard the weird bawling? What if I had gone to town, like I’d planned? What if the smoker wasn’t about to burn the bacon, bringing me outside to check on it? What if?

The next day, it was the weirdest thing. Those cows hung around that hole all day, eating grass, staring into the distance. I’d dragged timbers across it, an old gate, some random branches. I remembered the wells in Ireland, the sacred cow. What could it hurt? I picked the prettiest flowers in the garden, corn flowers, nasturtiums. Sunflowers. I went out there and laid them on the well. The goats ate them, not long after.

cows 2019.jpg

I stayed shook up for several weeks, thinking later that maybe all kinds of things, less important, rolled into this one big scare. The thought was, this is escalating, this series of events that happen when animals meet fences: the horse that rolled too close and couldn’t roll back because the field was a bit uphill and I saw him and thought all kinds of crazy ways to maybe help him until I got the Mikita and took a board off the fence. He was up in a flash, and back to grazing. The goats who get their heads stuck here and there all the time because they’re goats, always wanting to eat something just out of reach. The way sometimes one animal (a dog) might find it fun to chase another (a piglet), and take a little nip out of its backside because now it’s got its whole head jammed through a square of the electrified netting that is supposed to protect chickens from foxes.

Something bad happened just recently, when we were gone all day up to the Wet’suwet’en supporters camp on the edge of the “exclusion zone” while the police did god knows what to the people trying to keep the gas company out of their lands. I let the pigs out to mingle before I left, thinking maybe proximity to the boar would bring the young sow into heat – good timing for spring piglets – and came home to three wounded horses. Our winter arrangement, the de-icer floating in the stock tank, brings the cows and horses in to the barnyard to drink, meaning, apparently, that Kitsune the boar could corner them in the barnyard. We knew he liked to gnash and froth at them, but usually they would move out into the open field where it didn’t matter. Thank the goddess Falcon’s belly wound did not pierce all the way through to his gut. Thanks too, that the wound on Molly’s buttock – which tells us she had turned to kick the boar – has not crippled her. Fly had a scrape, healed up already. Absent easy access to a vet up here, we fall back on homeopathy, a specialty of many British vets but not as common here. I appreciate that there is a remedy combination for prevention of tetanus but I will ungrit my teeth in about a week when they don’t get it.  I think my nerves will do better with some anti-tetanus and tetanus toxoid in the fridge.

It used to be funny when the boar would pace, gnashing and frothing at the horses, but now he’s grown his tusks, though you can’t see them with his mouth shut and we only found them the other day, still short. But sharp. If we were in the city, it would be vets and stitches and what have you but out here we have to assess and decide whether and how to treat, how long we can wait, and whether we can trust that the animal will heal on its own. This is a tough line to walk. We can’t overdo it “just to be safe” and waiting to let Nature “take her course” can be excruciating.  Still, refraining from interventions has worked out time and again.  Obviously it’s not always possible, see above: “calf in well”.

horses and orbs.JPG

So back to the more ordinary, though still eventful stuff.  We have three pregnant cows, whose calves will be big enough to butcher about two years from now.   Steery has gone to heaven and his beautiful meat is in the freezer.  Thank you, young steer. And thank you kind people who helped us get him there. Proud of my daughter for learning on the spot, out of a book, how to separate all those complicated cuts.  It’s backbreaking work but we aim to get faster and better at it.

Butchering (put your big kid panties on and hear me out) is terrible. There is nothing fun or easy about doing it, or watching someone take the life of a fine young animal and skin it out, helping to scald the hair off if it’s a pig, or learning to kill, pluck and eviscerate a chicken. Though interesting every time as an anatomy lesson, and gratifying when it’s all over for now and you’ve got meat, it’s also primitive, primal and kind of grim. Hunters who have helped us “process” pigs (is “harvest”a better word?) tell us that for them, it’s much harder to shoot a fenced animal at close range than to hunt one down. I think it’s because there’s no element of chance, or escape. So why do it? Food. It’s not a tragedy to kill for food. Cruelty to animals is tragic, doing nothing to alleviate their suffering, causing them hunger, thirst or pain, isolation and loneliness, close confinement: these things are tragic. I don’t know what you’re thinking right now, but I find that in a death-fearing culture a lot of us don’t really want to know where our food comes from. Strange times.

Celeste's Eleven.jpg

I admit that when I lived in the Dream of finding a way to move to the country, to clean air and drinking water and the promise of self-sufficiency, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.  A lot of what we find ourselves doing seems to have just happened. When you’re living the dream it is now your reality – imperfect, challenging reality.  That means you will have to find another dream – but perhaps not immediately, because you must wrangle this reality, and yourself, in order to live it triumphantly, because it would be tragic to have achieved the dream and not be having any fun.

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.


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.

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?


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.


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


Like the web wound tight around a fly or nets that tangle a fish, I feel my heart ensnared by this country.  Like a twist of binder twine in the grass, like the sleepy snakes I found curled up inside an old tire, like the little dust devil Orca and I once saw whirling the leaves just outside our door, like the smoke winding out of the chimney or the way the horses wheel in tighter circles until they fall down in the snow and roll roll roll:  I feel myself caught up in the Great Spiral of life.  As the universe spins ever outward I notice moments pass, days – a dozen years – and sights, sounds, thoughts seem familiar, as if I’ve passed this way before.  I’ve seen this season, I’ve felt this sensation, I’ve noticed this mood or that tree or the way the cat’s eyes reflect the morning light.  There have been full moons, and new moons and the sun has risen in the east every day of my life.  And yet it’s all brand new.

It’s been snowing again in the Kispiox Valley.  Billions of flakes each one unique come spiraling down from a blue-grey sky.  Little streaks of white – probably  miles across, if I try to measure them against the mountains – hint at sunshine later.  Or maybe not.

The old almanacs predicted a snowy winter this year and so far we have seen two or three feet fall and settle.  I was raised in snow country.  I am not alarmed by snow.  I know to put things away in the fall, because anything left out in the open will soon lose its defining characteristics under that soft blanket and be lost until spring.  Even a spare vehicle will be reduced to a vague shape over there somewhere. But no matter how deep the snow, it will be manageable, as long as we do our preventative maintenance, and the weather stays colder than zero.  There is no guarantee of that, of course.  Even a couple of degrees makes the difference between cozy stalls and dry bedding or creeping damp with dripping eaves.  At this stage of winter we are unlikely to return to the deep sucking mud of autumn, but moist cold air – or freezing rain – will plaster a bird’s feathers down, and penetrate a horse’s winter coat. Pigs suffer in the damp, when the bedding loses its loft and mould spores wake up.  The barnyard hydrant is more likely to freeze up during a melt, when the frost line moves upward.  No, we like it to be cold in the winter.

Metal roofs, which most of ours are, serve people well in snow country, except when temperatures hover around freezing, and the bottom layer of snow – closest to the warmth of the fire, or the breath of the animals – melts and freezes repeatedly.  Then a solid layer of ice forms, and the weight on the roof increases until  that tentative seal is broken and the icy snow slides in great sheets – like bed covers flung off with the sound of the rooster.  Until then, it settles grudgingly, hunkered like an unpredictable beast that might lunge over the edge at any moment to crash in hundredweights on the ground below.

We have only to glance out the cabin window to the wreckage of our little tarp-covered shed, to be reminded that every system has its tolerance and its limits.  Mindful though we were of the plastic greenhouses and the goat shelters, we forgot about the vacant shed, picturesque under its load of snow.  When we arrived on the farm last year, it was just a frame, bolted to the ground, and probably once used as a carport.  We gave it a tarp roof, which was repeatedly ripped off by the howling East Winds, until finally the tarp was beyond repair. This year the weather has been much kinder, and the tarp much more heavy-duty. We anchored the grommets to the frame with zip ties, and stored tires, and hay, and machinery that was taking up space in the woodshed.  We added a door and some heavy wire to make a shelter for the goose, and later, attached chicken wire above that so the younger chickens could grow in piece, and later still, we needed a shady space for the baby chicks who arrived in the mail during a heat wave.  Since then, we’ve used the little shed as a night shelter for the second litter of pups, born outdoors, and an extra place for goats to get out of the rain.  Goats don’t like rain. After that, with various improvements in animal accommodations, including a new chicken coop and hayloft, the space wasn’t really needed, and sheltered only a metal cart on wheels and a last bale of straw brought in as mulch for the garlic.  These survived the shed’s collapse.

The twisted remains are an eyesore.  I have shoveled away the heavy ice, to free the damaged tarp, and salvaged some of the metal tubing.  I accidentally pitched a corner piece through the south window of the outhouse.  Now it looks haunted.  I have yet to disentangle the homemade door, the wire netting and 2×4’s, and recover all the zip ties, which are impossible to release and have to be cut.  That’s why the police like them so well – they can be pulled nice and tight and they’re cheaper than handcuffs.

Plastic can be a terrible polluter.  We are still finding the shreds of buried tarps in the fields and the woods and the barnyard.  Nature reclaims everything, faster than you’d think, but some materials are more trouble than others.  Concrete, after all, is rocks and minerals accreted together and easily worn away in mere decades.  Wood, metal, fiber, glass (but not fiberglass) – all will crumble and be reabsorbed into the elements.  Plastic is different.  But you know all these things. You can bury it, or burn it, but better to gather it up and take it to the dump.  We love the dump.  We’re not so stupid that we believe our junk is “gone” but we don’t have to trip over it or find places to pile it.  Instead, the dump lady in her big machine mixes it in with everyone else’s junk, in one designated place.

So where was I?  Spirals, and rhythms, and life on the farm.

November has wound down, and we’re past the Cold Moon of December.  The solstice is almost here and the merciful snow is falling again, covering all the signs – and sins – revealed by the melt.  For example, blood. We butchered late.  The chickens weren’t growing as expected so we delayed awhile, fed them a lot and waited for a clear day to gather a crew to help us get them into the freezer.  We had three people plucking, eviscerating, weighing and bagging, and me and a neighbour on the killing floor.  Over and over, I made the stealthy, treacherous foray into the greenhouse coop to snatch up a speckled hen and bear it, trembling, out into the snow where my burly neighbour stood ready.  As gently as I could, I would place each bird backwards under my arm, holding the legs with my other hand, and turn so he could grasp the neck and stretch it out for the knife.  Each time, I felt the tug and the jerk in my own body.  Then I would let the bird swing downwards into a pail, where the blood froze as it dripped.  Death does not come instantly, or truly gently for anything killed before its time.  A chicken really will run around for a while after its head is cut off, or it will kick mightily for a long minute when held upside down to bleed out in a bucket.   At some point, I decided the remaining few birds were too little to make a meal, so I called a halt to the carnage and we two helped with the “processing”.  I use quotation marks to emphasize that this is a euphemism, designed to make a hard truth more bearable, and less laden with details.

If all this sounds grim, it is. There are choices in how involved you want to get.  If you butcher at home, which I think is easiest on the animals, if not on you, each helper takes on the job they are best at, or you could load all the chickens, or pigs, or sheep onto a truck and drive them an hour or more to the abattoir, which, being a French word, sounds nicer to me than slaughter house, but they are exactly the same thing.  Here, each animal would await its death, with debatable awareness of what is to come. It would be no different than on the farm, except for that stressful journey.  One thing for certain, though, and I don’t think anyone involved would argue:  once a chicken is killed and plucked, or a pig gutted and hung, it is food – clean, nutritious, delicious meat – for which we are truly thankful.

A few days after this, the weather begins to shift.  The breeze is up, the moon is out, and clouds stream down from the east like avenging angels.  I want to go to the neighbour’s bonfire, but first, we have agreed, we will transfer those remaining chickens to the new hen house, recently built in the barn.  There is a thick ground fog creeping up from the river, a sign of the impending melt, though we haven’t made that connection yet.  My daughter and I take the trembling birds (as she says, “how do they know this is not their dying day?”) one by one from their perch, tuck them under our arms, and stumble through deep snow in the dark, pushing through the throng of curious goats (do they never sleep?) to open the gate one-handed, and close it again in their faces.  Goats have obsessive minds.  They would like nothing more than to get at the chicken feed in the coop, or better yet, gain access to the feed room alongside, with its smorgasbord of  grains and salty minerals.

After a trip or two, we find it easier to climb the fence, balancing a chicken each.  We creak open the hen house door, mindful of the goose, who has become more protective (and aggressive) as the snow encroaches on his freedom, and hold each chicken above an empty spot on the roost.  We wait for her to cling on with her dinosaur claws, and go back for another trip. We have learned to re-home chickens after dark, when everybody is sleepy, so that when the old chickens and new chickens wake up in the morning, they will think all their life before was a dream, and this is how the world is, and they have always been together.

Not everyone gets to live in a way that keeps them connected to nature, or if they do they prefer a well-planned garden with the illusion of control.  A lot of us are afraid of the wild, the cold, the storms. But storms, heat waves, power outages – they come and go, as do idyllic sunny days at the river, and visits from beloved family and friends.  Everything is temporary, everything passes, nothing stays the same.  Every day, each moment, is new, and ancient.  My job is to stay present, and that is much harder than hauling bales or unloading bags of feed, digging in the garden or facing down the goose when he’s mad.  It’s easier to be present when there’s an emergency, or a string of emergencies, or occurrences that feel urgent, whether they truly are or not.  It can get so that your nervous system thinks everything needs immediate attention, and that’s how you can stay busy and never have to sink down to face a deeper truth.

Finding a young pig buried in the hay, refusing to get up or to eat, is not an emergency.  There is time to go back to the house, drink a cup of coffee, and plan what to do.  Vet visits are expensive and therefore rare, but sometimes they are just out of the question:  for example, if an animal is bleeding, you won’t get a vet there in time to do anything.  Impending births are always a bit nerve-wracking, so most of us know which vets are on call, in case we need to be talked through a procedure. Persistent lameness might be a reason to pay for a vet to drive the hour from Smithers, and gelding a horse is nearly always a good reason.

Celeste the pig responded to the enticement of an apple, hand fed to her in little pieces.  After that, she was willing to try the warm porridge we brought out in a bucket.  We had to be surreptitious, while the others were at the trough, crouching in the hay beside her and trying not to draw the boar’s attention.  This was not because the little bugger is aggressive, but because he’s going to want what’s in the bucket, and would knock you over to get at it.   Celeste is only half the size of her momma, but it’s still hard to coax 300 pounds of sulking adolescent sore-legged pig to her feet and assess whether there’s anything broken.  Obviously not, if she can stand on it, no matter how shaky she is at first.  Enticing is always easier than pushing, my daughter has taught me.   After a few days of watchful care, there were 4 flat, rubbery snouts (so cute!) at the trough again: Celeste, Mama pig, Kitsune – our hope for the future – and Bruiser, aka Tiny Pig or, lately, “Spring Pork” – who, like the little chickens, is wintering over without the extra competition for food.

No, nothing needs to be done quickly unless someone is bleeding or choking.  Goats with their heads caught in buckets or under fences need to be disentangled, but speed can panic the animal and botch the job.  The mare who suddenly loses condition got that way for a reason, and it can take time to discover what is wrong, and what she needs.  Smoke or water leaking where they shouldn’t are semi-emergencies.  So are floods, frozen pipes, open gates, breaks in the fence and missing animals.


Now, just before Solstice and Yuletide, we are in the season of cold, quiet waiting. We’re staying home this year, awaiting our visitors. This means there is time for socializing, and snowshoeing, letter-writing and Netflix.   Trips to town are at a minimum: most of what we need is in the larder. The animals don’t require much.  The pigs all but hibernate between meals, although there are trails in the deep snow criss-crossing through their pasture so we know they take their exercise.  The horses and dogs are as active as ever, but they all (except the new puppy, who is a couch potato) love the snow and keep each other busy and fit.  Chores only take 40 minutes twice a day.  Thanks to the new arrangements, everyone can be fed from a central location.

When my daughter built the coop adjoining the west wall of the feed room, she cut holes in back of each nest box.  She fashioned a set of doors that cover them on our side, so now when I check for eggs, it’s like opening a giant Advent calendar.  I ease the doors open and see if there’s a prize in any of the nests.  The novelty of finding more eggs than I can fit in my pockets has not worn off yet. When a hen is laying, her soft feathers bulge at the opening.  If we move quietly, she is not disturbed; we can come back later.  Once, I was transformed from gatherer to awed observer when a hen stood up, backlit by the soft red glow of the heat lamp.  Her egg appeared amidst the feathers of her fluffy backside and fell the last inch or two into the clean shavings. I saw how she bent to it, rolling it gently a little forward and back, and settled her body over it.  After a moment, apparently satisfied, she stood again and jumped from the nest, fluttering to the ground.  I cradled the blood-warm egg, glad for the experience, glad for the food.

I have been to chicken school and back this year as I try to figure out which breeds I want to help coax back from the brink of extinction, which give a balance of meat and eggs, which will look after their own chicks – and they’ll have to when all the power in the world goes out and the incubator doesn’t work anymore. A lot of bothersome traits have been bred right out of our modern chickens, broodiness, for example, foraging urges, and the ability to fly up into trees, which leaves many breeds unsuited to survival in the Northern Bush.  And, though I thought I had made good choices, there is always an element of idealism when you read hatchery brochures, or seed catalogues.  My dream is to work toward a self-sustaining flock.  Let’s see how I can move that forward next year.  I have some leads on Icelandic chickens, whose genetics go back 1000 years, and are at least 78% distinct from all other chickens in the world.  More on that in future.

My heritage hens took their sweet time but they’re laying now, enough eggs to give us breakfast and do some baking and make Christmas eggnog. Ahem.  Every night.  The freezers are full of pork, poultry and vegetables.  It was hard to take part in the hog butchering, but I am glad to say it went as well as it could have.  My daughter gently enticed the two in question to another pen, out of sight of the rest of the herd.  People will tell you “pigs know” and maybe they do, but I can swear that when our neighbour shot the one pig, the other beside him did not look up from his breakfast, and when he did look up a few moments later, he also received a 22 bullet in the forehead.  It’s never fun to see the death throes of an animal whose brain is no longer communicating with its body, but as soon as it’s over, the meat is a harvest.  The butchering part is incredibly hard physical work and I can see why people get it done at the abbatoir.  I want to be confident we know every step though, and I want to provide the best life I can on the farm, until that “one bad moment”.

I did wonder if Momma Pig noticed the reduction in numbers, later.  She seemed listless for a few days, and the damp chill had me worried.  How do you comfort a 600 pound sow?  Answer, from a young friend with far more experience than I:  Get her a round bale of hay, or peas, or wheat straw, and wrestle it off your truck into her shelter and let her and her remaining family get busy burrowing and pushing it around to make a warm nest. I swear there were smiles. Nothing like a bustle and a purpose to raise the spirits.

I was afraid of butchering day.  It loomed as a final hurdle in a year full of challenges.  I was afraid it wouldn’t be planned well enough, or something would go wrong.  I was afraid of how it would feel to take the life of a pig whose company I had enjoyed.  Worse than killing chickens, or fish?  I wondered if it would put me off pork for good, frankly.  I have been afraid often here: not of the cold or the dark or power failures or the isolation so much, but of what those elements might do to the animals in my care.  Afraid that, through inexperience, I might not have provided adequately for them.

I have also been afraid of the animals themselves, at different times – of the horses, the pigs, a particularly aggressive rooster, and of the goose when he’s in a mood.  Not of the goats, though I suppose even those gentle souls could turn rogue in the wrong circumstances.  I can see why someone might say “get rid of that animal” or be inclined to incarcerate it or beat it to make it afraid of them.  I have personally eaten a mean rooster.  I still don’t find it pleasant to be crowded by the horses, or to look up and see Fly the Attack Pony bearing down on me in the field when I’m far from cover.  I don’t like that the goose has turned crabby, and his movements have to be considered when I’m feeding chickens and goats.  But I’ve gained more from dealing with each situation than I would if I were never afraid in the first place.  I’ve become less afraid of each thing as I get to know it more intimately, and stop taking the situation personally, like a Vancouverite offended by the weather.

I have been afraid of failure, of running out of money, of never seeing certain people again, of my parents dying while I’m far away, of my own premature death.  But I know that fear can stop us from doing what we love, or what we want to do.  Our own fears can stop us from allowing others to be themselves, to pursue their true natures. It can make us cling too tightly, so we lose our perspective.  It can stop us from thinking things through.  In our culture we have allowed fear to rule.  We believe we should get rid of what we fear, rather than learn not to fear it.  We believe that fear is legitimate in that way, and enough reason not to proceed.  We will never be free of fear and anxiety but it can’t be allowed to dictate our lives, or our politics.

I don’t know if living out here will make me brave, or drive me crazy.  Or something in between.  I don’t think I care, really, as long as I get to be here.

The thermometer reads -9, and falling.  The sky is clear, hyacinth blue, and every crevice and contour of the mountains is limned with white.  Today the snow has formed into little flat discs, like billions of bits of mica, each one unique, and the land lays quiet and frozen, enfolding the life to come.  I feed the pigs and chickens and goats and horses, and the goose, who can’t be arsed to cooperate and go to be just yet.  The dogs and I head back to the house, the cold nipping at my fingers and toes, the tips of my ears.  Darkness gathers us up; stars pierce the sky like needlework.  Dinner awaits, and bed.  Soon the night will pass, and then another, til the Solstice, and the great wheel will start to rise toward the light again.