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Everyone needs a Dot to greet them when they return home, waiting patiently on the kitchen door step, 2 fences away from the barnyard where she belongs. Everyone needs a Dot to nestle down on the hearth in front of a roaring winter fire, and peck contentedly at a scattered pile of cracked corn. Everyone needs a Dot for their 3 yr old to coddle like a live, feathered baby doll, or snuggle down in their lap while they read a good book. Everyone needs a Dot to tap her beak on their neighbors’ sliding back door, asking politely for cracker crumbs.

And we are one of those fortunate ones because we DO have a Dot! THE Dot, in fact. The FAMOUS Dot!

Sweet Dot, as we call her, is our very special Ameraucana hen. She came in the mail along with 23 other day-old chicks, 3 springs ago, to grace our farm with her beauty and unusual personality. She lays lovely powder blue eggs that are rather torpedo shaped, and follows us around the farm like a family golden retriever. She is small (allowing her to jump through all the fences), very sensitive, and empathic. To date she has “midwifed” 3 of our ailing hens to their deaths, acting as a hospice worker, snuggled up beside them as each made their earthly transitions to chicken heaven. Dot even supported the body of our flock matriarch, Gertie, as she slumped over Dot’s multicolored back in the slow act of dying. Read about that story here. Once her “patients” have passed through to the other side, Dot gets up and goes on about her normal chicken-ish business.

Here is Dot using her own body to support dying Gertie.

Here is Dot using her own body to support dying Gertie.

Although, the idea of Dot acting like a chicken is rather far fetched these days. In fact, she can not make up her mind if she is a dog, a cat, a goat or a human. But in her little pea sized brain, she is most definitely NOT a chicken.

As sensitive as she is, she has always been at the bottom of the pecking order. She does not excel at fighting back or standing up for herself. Gandhi would have been proud of our wee Dot. But the results of her gentle personality was really making itself known early last fall. She was losing more and more feathers from the rough attentions of the rest of her flock – especially Little Willie, the rooster, who had chosen Dot as his personal concubine. She was not holding up well under the strain of this involuntary position. Then one afternoon, when I went out for feeding chores, I realized that Dot had been on the roost in the coop for the entire day. She had not eaten or drunk – anything. It occurred to me that she had simply given up the fight. Life was just too hard for her and she was done trying. I removed the coop window and reached in to take her gently off the roost. In my arms she laid her head in the crook of my elbow with a tired sigh. I took her inside the house and gave her a bowl of grain and one of water. In her new surroundings, she perked right up and soon realized she had no competition for dinner! She DEVOURED everything, and then set about the serious business of getting to know her humans’ house, leaving a trail of chicken land mines in her wake.

It was now my turn to sigh as I followed her about with a roll of paper towels and a bottle of cleaning spray.

But in the days and weeks that followed, we set Dot up on our back porch with her own little house, nesting box and perch, although she usually preferred to perch on our porch love seat and watch us through the picture window. The love seat soon became uninhabitable to her new human family, so she was moved daily to the garden (which was mostly put to bed), and then moved back to her porch box each evening. Her feathers began their natural process of fall molting, and with no flock to yank them back out, she soon had a new set for winter. She filled out and put on weight, and seemed extremely content with the new arrangement. And she became firmly attached to her humans, and absolutely beautiful once again.

Dot and Isla ready the house for our Solstice gathering.

Dot and Isla ready the house for our Solstice gathering.

When winter set in, we covered her house with an insulating blanket and installed a red bulb inside for warmth. The garden was covered thickly with snow so she remained mostly on the porch. It was a bitterly cold winter with dozens of nights in double digit sub zero temps. So after chilly morning farm chores, we would usually bring Dot in to warm up by the fire. She learned that if she was still and quiet, we would often forget about her, and she could get away with hours of fireside time, nestled against the pile of firewood on the hearth, watching our family proceedings through her warm brown eyes, half mast with contentment.

When the worst of the cold had passed, we decided to try some re-integration attempts. The porch faced north and Dot was getting no exercise and no sun as she preferred to stand by the glass porch door waiting to be let inside. The first day back in the barnyard must have been pretty re-traumatizing for her as she quickly escaped to the goat field and huddled alone under a sage brush all day. And that became the new routine as each afternoon we had to go on a Dot hunt in the field to find her chosen bush of the day. Sometimes she would hop out through the field fence and into the big, bad world, full of roaming dogs and coyotes and hawks – NOT a safe place for a sweet little hen. We worried about her a lot.

And then she went missing for 3 whole days. I was SURE she had been eaten by a predator. I was very sad, missing her warm, gentle, feathery bulk in my arms (but not necessarily missing the mandatory afternoon chicken hunts or piles of poop on the porch). And then on the 4th day, Randy came in from milking with Dot in his arms. She was starved and dehydrated but alive! “Where did you find her?” I gasped. “She got stuck in the hay storage between a bale and the wall. She couldn’t turn around to get out.” I later learned a friend had lost one of her chickens that same way with a not-so-happy ending to her story.

DSC05423Spring is once more working to get a foothold on our farm in between a string of late winter snow storms, and Dot is doing fairly well in the barn yard again. She has lost a few feathers, and refuses to use the coop, but we have made some compromises and are working out the new arrangements. She sleeps on the milking stand or in the second story of Isla’s old doll house next to the hay, gets fed separately on top of the hay bales, and rides around on Hazelnut’s back to keep Little Willie from his less than gentle attentions. When she is not on top of the goats, she is between their legs as they eat their hay. She obviously feels safe with the large mammals (I believe it’s because the other chickens steer clear of them). If I am in the barnyard and Little Willie is stalking her, she runs and huddles between my feet, communicating with agitation that she’d like to be saved by my loving arms. She rides on my forearm for chores, like a trained falcon, and huddles on the edge of the milking stand for morning milking. She has as little interaction with the other chickens as possible. And if she ends up in the yard, she goes straight to the back porch and looks continuously in through the porch door, hoping to be let in for some snuggles and attention. If no one responds to her request she will perch on the edge of Molly’s dog bed (a net type bed suspended by a frame) while Molly, our Pyrenees, snores in the net.

My little angel getting back blown by the spring storm.

My little angel getting back blown by the spring storm.

I am blessed to have several friends who I am sure have left their wings out of sight, just around the corner. You know the type: hearts as open as split watermelons, oozing unconditional love and positive energy all around them. What a sloppy, love-filled mess they make. Ahhh. And that, too, is Dot, but she gets to keep her wings on, lucky little angel.

So is a chicken still a chicken if they are convinced they are otherwise? An interesting question that I know not the answer to. But I do know that Dot is one special creature, regardless of species, and we are lucky to have her in our lives. She has been high maintenance to be sure, and caused us no end of worry, but the love and joy she brings us makes it all worthwhile in the end.

Thank you Sweet Dot for choosing us to be your family. May your winged life be long and safe and may your angelic heart touch many.

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I am Scottish. That should explain all, right? Let’s start with my name: MacLaren Scott. If that didn’t clue you in… well, there may be no hope. Sorry. My husband is Czech and German. Fortunately, my clansmen and women still love and accept him, regardless of this handicap. When he accompanies me to the Highland Games, they make him an honorary member of Clan “McKraut”, as it were. This way he feels… included and not quite so silly wearing a kilt of his wife’s tartan. (Besides, if he didn’t he may never have sex with said wife again.)

Now being an honorary member of Clan McKraut, Hubby also received the honor of tasting my newest batch of sauerkraut…. first. Because after all, he IS a descendent of two kraut making cultures. (I get the first taste from new bottles of scotch, so it all comes out in the wash.) Usually I just bring the sample to him, but this time I asked for his help in photographing the experience. He had never seen the disrobing of a freshly cultured crock of kraut before and therefore did not expect the colorful fur coat and pungent smell of roquefort cheese… and worse. He grimaced as he took pictures for me, rivaling only our 3 yr old for the most expressive face of revulsion west of the Mississippi. But once the mold was peeled away, the inverted plate removed, the top layers scrapped off and the inner sides sponged clean, his interest was beginning to grow.

Setting up to jar the sauerkraut.

Setting up to jar the sauerkraut.

The weight, a 1/2 gal jar of water, has been removed and now we ogle at all the pretty, furry colors!

The weight, a 1/2 gal jar of water, has been removed and now we ogle at all the pretty, furry colors!

Remove those pretty colors from the bottom of the plate...

Remove those pretty colors from the bottom of the plate…

...and then remove the plate by pushing down on one side and grabbing under the other.

…and then remove the plate by pushing down on one side and grabbing under the rim of the other side.

Scrap off the top layer of kraut, a bit deeper around the sides.

Scrap off the top layer of kraut, a bit deeper near the walls.

“Why are you taking so much off!?” he asked with dismay, demonstrating the way his wife’s scottish thriftiness has rubbed off on him. “Because I don’t want to be responsible for killing myself and my family”, I replied evenly. I don’t really think I would kill anyone, I just want to get as far away from the mold layer as I can without wasting too much of the gold beneath. I have never taken the energy needed to send off samples of the mold to see if it is harmful, I just follow my homesteading mom philosophy of “What would Ma and Pa Ingalls do?” Well, they sure wouldn’t be shipping their kraut molds off to a lab and neither will I. After all, I consume blue cheese and haven’t died yet.

Wipe around the inner sides of the crock to remove the rim of mold.

Wipe around the inner sides of the crock to remove the rim of mold.

And this is what you've got. This particular batch is a mixture of green cabbage, red cabbage, carrots which is why is has a pinkish-orangish color to it.

And this is what you’ve got. This particular batch is a mixture of green cabbage, red cabbage and carrots which is why is has a pinkish-orangish color to it, reminiscent of a NM sunset!

“Ya ready Dear?” I asked with a devilish smile. He nodded and opened his mouth like a good little guinea pig. I scooped a fork full from the side where the mold had seemed the deepest and shoveled it into his pie hole. “Mmmmmmm….” he said. He was still standing. “Dats ‘ooood.” “Does it taste like mold?” I inquired. He swallowed. “Not a bit! But what I don’t understand is how something can taste so good that smelled like a never ending fart for 2 1/2 weeks.”

Well, there you have it. Making kraut in a crock may not make friends during the culturing, but those same friends will be lining up outside your door once it’s jarred. Please see the beginning of this process from 2 1/2 weeks ago here. I would have jarred it after 2 weeks, but the entire family was down with head colds. Fortunately, the kraut is very forgiving. Two to three weeks is the window I shoot for, barring death or dismemberment. If that occurred, I am sure it could wait another week or so while we collect and reattach the missing limbs.

The afore mentioned 3 year old insisted on getting out of her bath to assist me with the last jar.

The afore mentioned 3 year old insisted on getting out of her bath to help me fill and pack the last jar.

Not as many jars as I had hoped for. I guess I did not realize how small the cabbage heads really were. This is the results of 9 med-small heads of cabbage and 9 large carrots. As I already had takers for half this haul, guess I'd better start the next batch soon!

Not as many jars as I had hoped for. I guess I did not realize how small the cabbage heads really were. This is the results of 9 medium/small heads of cabbage and 9 large carrots. As I already have takers for half this haul, guess I’d better start the next batch soon!

I doubt I need to tell you how to put kraut into a jar. But I will make a few suggestions. You’ll want to stir and fluff the batch first and try to take your spoonfuls (or handfuls) from the bottom of the crock. This is where the juice ends up and you don’t want your first jars to be dry and your last jars to be juicy. Aim for getting some juice in all the jars, and once full, pack it down hard. Continue to add and pack until the well packed jar is full. Screw on the lid and store in the refrigerator. You can certainly eat your kraut right away once it’s jarred, but it will get better and better the longer you wait – up until a point anyway. I sampled a jar from my friend that had been stored in the fridge for 9 months. He shared it with sacred reverence like a well aged single malt and it was quite divine. I try to wait at least 2 weeks after the jarring before I sell or barter any with friends. It’s a long time for them to wait outside in line, but people do it for concerts, right?

And if you find a long lost jar in the back of your fridge one day, and are nervous about trying it, let me know and I’ll send Mr. McKraut over with his pie hole. Just have your fork poised and ready, eh?

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I love looking at a fresh head of cabbage: the pale underground quality of the spring green, the slight waxy sheen of the surface, the sturdy leaf spines ending in curling ripples, like a gentle ocean wavelet, sucking back down a steep, sandy beach. I love the crunch of my heavy 10″ chopping knife as it reveals the secretes within that dense head.

Good thing, because I had nine of them to chop which meant a lot of cabbage brains spilling over my counter top. But that was where friend Marian came in… with her superior Japanese cutlery and sexy bamboo cutting board. Whew! Off the hook.

Here's Marian hard at work.

Here’s Marian hard at work.

And so my morning began, with “Mare” on washing and chopping detail and Isla and I on the food processor, sea salt, caraway and whey song and dance (maybe I’ll include a video of the literal song and dance when we jar the kraut in another 2 weeks, for there actually IS one! Hasn’t everyone made up a kraut song with their 3 year old?). We alternated purple heads with green, grinding in a large carrot with each. Then 1 tbsp of coarse celtic sea salt, 3/4ish tbsp caraway seeds and 4-ish to 5 tbsp of whey left over from my last batch of goat chevre. Isla and I filled the hopper, I ground while she covered her sensitive, wee ears, I dumped the pile in the massive metal bowl, I measured and Isla dumped in the condiments. Then together, with very well washed hands, we stirred it all in , inquisitive fingertips tickling one another inside of the grated mass. Most of it stayed in the bowl. The vegetables dwindled as our multi-colored mound grew, and pretty soon it was time for clean up and hugging Mare goodbye. And here is where I let the salt and whey do their jobs. There is very little kraut bashing with this method. I just leave it to rest on a counter top with a clean towel draped over it, and get to work on something else.

Grating with the life saving food processor.

Grating with the life saving food processor.

Add the sea salt, caraway and cheese whey....

Add the sea salt, caraway and cheese whey….

...mix, cover, and wait!

…mix, cover, and wait!

The next something else was re-rendering our recently rendered goat tallow. I had noticed at the end of the first rendering, that there were a few bits of meat on the bottom of the last batch of tallow muffins. Read this post for more info on that first rendering job. I was not interested in goat meat showing up in future soaps, lotion bars and pastry crusts, so I set a massive pot on the stove top with about 4″ of water in the bottom.

While that got to boiling, I moved onto the third something else – boiling up a whole chicken for bone broth, gelatin, and meat. As I rinsed the expensive, organic chicken carcass, I vowed that we would buy straight runs of chicks this spring. I wanted my fall freezer filled with mean roosters from my back yard. No more $12 chickens from the store!!! I plopped the gold gilt bird into our crock pot with water and reached for one of our onions. This was when I received a horrible shock! No, not an electrical shock, a “we’re almost out of onions” shock! In fact, after this one, there was only one left!!! Our harvest had lasted until Feb 6th. Honestly, I was quite proud, but still weepy, as I sliced through the brittle, brown skin and into the white, seeping flesh. Oh. Well of course I was weeping – it was a yellow onion.

We try to boil up a whole chicken about once every 2 weeks. The meat and broth get used slowly over that period and much of the broth is frozen.

We try to boil up a whole chicken once every 2 or so weeks. The meat and broth get used slowly over that period and much of the broth is frozen.

Crock pot loaded and topped, I checked the pot on the stove. Boiling – good. Outside to the deep freeze on the porch. Molly, our Pyrenees leapt repeatedly into the air, channeling her border collie alter ego, hoping to catch a falling goat roast as I juggled the bags of tallow muffins. I dumped them ALL in, undeniable proof of my characteristic impatience.

Tallow muffins re-melting for a cleaner render.

Tallow muffins re-melting for a cleaner render.

Now what? I put away some dishes, blended up some kefir mango lassies, sliced some pears, spread chevre on the slices, and called back in my daughter for her elevensies (oh woops – at 12:30pm. Dear me. Don’t think I would impress any parenting specialists today.). And then, thankfully, it was quiet time. Isla read “quietly” on her bed (which means in a loud whisper to her doll Sarah) while I read a parenting book on mine, in hopes of getting a higher rating from said specialists. And as an aside, this is one of my two most favorite parenting books and I am reading it for the second time. How to Talk So Kids Will listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish. (And here is the second of my 2 favorite parenting books, “Simplicity Parenting”.)

Setting up to blend our homemade kefir.

Setting up to blend our homemade kefir mango lassies.

First, we strain the grains of kefir out of the kefir cultured goat milk.

First, we strain the grains of kefir out of the kefir cultured goat milk.

The grains are left behind and look like this.

The grains are left behind and look like this.

I just dump these grains right into a fresh jar of goat milk.

I just dump these grains right into a fresh jar of goat milk.

Then I use one of my nifty, homemade, magnetic jar lid labels to let me know it is kefir, and the day I put it in my cabinet to culture.

Then I use one of my nifty, homemade, magnetic jar lid labels to let me know it is kefir, and the day I put it in my cabinet to culture. It should be ready to consume in about 2 full days.

Chopped mangos, cinnamon, and maple syrup from my friend's farm in VT is added, and blended with a stick blender.

Chopped mangos, cinnamon, and maple syrup from my friend’s farm in VT is added, and blended with a stick blender. If we feel the need for more sweetener in the cup, we add a couple of drops of stevia.

Voila! Kefir mango lassies! One of our favorite treats.

Voila! Kefir mango lassies! One of our favorite treats.

Rest “hour” always feels like it is only 10 minutes, but the clock argued with my opinion loudly. Back in the kitchen I checked the tallow. It was melting nicely but there were still plenty of chunks. The “golden chicken” in the crock pot was simmering cooperatively, and it was not yet animal chore time. So back to the kraut went I.

I washed and rinsed well the 5 gal crock. I say this in such an off hand manner, but this is probably the hardest part of the the entire job. Have you ever tried to lift a 5 gallon, stoneware crock? No? Well start preparing the discs in your spine for some serious air time because they are about to be blown from your back in all directions. And then once in your sink – your teeny, miniscule, stainless steel sink (where you realize with terror that you have swiveled the spigot to the wrong side of the barely movable crock-a-saurus) – you have your eye balls shaken and teeth set on edge by the barest of movements of this mountain of ceramic against that teeny sink. Think fingernails on chalk boards. After this heavy weight wrestling match you still need to dry the leviathan and beach it onto the seat of a chair. Let’s hope the legs of that chair don’t promptly retaliate against the whale you dropped in their lap.

Next, with carefully wash hands, the kraut is transfered lovingly from the bowl to the crock, by double handfuls. (Make sure the crock is on a chair and not the floor as with all those missing discs, you will no longer be able to bend over.) At this time, if I were adding fresh dill instead of caraway, I would layer in a dill sprig after each couple of double handfuls. If you feel the need for some anger management, you are welcome to bring out a kraut bat at this time and pummel the kraut into submission. But it really is not necessary as the resting with the salt should have pulled the juices out of the grated vegetables by now. The addition of the whey will have given you plenty of juice. Give it a check by pushing your open hand down on the surface of the kraut. See all that juice rise up between your fingers? If you are answering “no”, then you probably weigh under 100 lbs and need to eat a lot more kraut. LEAN into it you light weight! THERE is that juice! I have to admit I like to abuse my kraut just a wee bit before I shut it up in the dark for 2 weeks. I have tried stomping in the crock with meticulously cleaned bare feet, but with size ten battleships, it was not terribly comfortable. So I usually just use my balled fists and puuuush in, alternating hands. I have not yet identified this gene – the one that entices me to do more work than I need to – the same gene that convinces me to knead my no-knead bread dough. But there it is.

Transferring the kraut from bowl to the crock.

Transferring the kraut from the bowl to the crock.

Punch it out baby!

Punch it out baby!

There's that magic juice!

There’s that magic juice!

Now I slip in an upside down dinner plate, well washed and rinsed first, of just the right size to cover as much of the surface as possible with out getting hung up on the sides of the crock (because ceramic grating on ceramic is only second in line behind ceramic on steel). Then I burp out the trapped air by pushing hard on one edge of the plate until all the bubbles release from under the concave surface of the plate. (You are welcome to use a truck with a cherry picker to lift the crock to your shoulder if you would like to attempt the burping in a more motherly fashion.) Then I fill a half gallon, or 2 qt jars (meticulously washed and rinse before hand, inside and out) with water, screw the lids on tightly, and place these weights on the protruding rump of the plate. This is merely to hold the plate down and keep the kraut under the juice. Lastly, cover the crock with a clean towel (I use a thick bath towel doubled over), and hire your neighbor and his back hoe to move it to a quiet spot in your house where it can remain undisturbed for at least 2 weeks. Join me in said time to see what our cheese whey and nifty, household microbes have created by clicking this link here.

Plate in and weighted with a half gallon jar filled with water.

Plate in and weighted down with a half gallon jar filled with water.

The back hoe has moved the crock to it's final resting place to do it's thang. I always add a label with the date, 2 weeks out, when I can jar the batch.

The back hoe has moved the crock to it’s final resting place to do it’s thang. I always add a label with the date, 2 weeks out, when I can jar the batch.

OK. The tallow. It had melted and was at a rolling bowl with the water, hopefully as clean as a whistle. Then I simply repeated the previous rendering steps of ladling out the clear, liquid fat, straining it through a butter muslin-lined strainer, into a 4 cup measure, then pouring from the measuring cup into the muffin tins. Soon after, I discovered the process was not proceeding as planned (or previously experienced). It seems my impatient personality (that other unwanted gene) was not allowing the muffin tins enough time to chill in the freezer. So learn from my T’s and T’s (trials and tribulations) – let the tallow chill until some surface cracks show on the muffin tops. Do not try to extricate the muffins before this time (unless you want to bring in your neighbor’s heavy equipment again). Once the surface cracks are visible, run hot water over the bottom of the tins (quickly as they will want to leap from your overturned tin and break themselves in the depths of that teeny, weeny stainless steel sink with the ceramic scrapes on the edges), and pop the remaining muffins out onto a sheet of wax paper by inverting the tin again and pressing the center of each muffin cup. Slip the muffins into a gallon zip lock, suck out the air with your mouth, and store in the freezer.

The tallow is all melted and ready to portion out into the muffin tins.

The tallow is all melted and ready to portion out into the muffin tins.

But I did not finish muffinizing all the tallow as animal chore time, laundry folding, hot bath, speedy dinner, and a movie with Marian preempted the rest of my greasy project (and I highly recommend seeing “Silver Linings Playbook”, by the ah, “whey”). So today I have a cool pot of water (I presume) with a thick circular block of solidified tallow on the surface (guessing at being 5″ thick without taking a core sample to verify). As I have been writing, I have not had a chance to tackle it’s removal. And I am about to make the drive to pick Isla up from pre-school now. (But you can see what it looked like at the end of this later post.)

I think I’ll just call my neighbor on the way and hire his power auger. I’m sure that will do the trick!

Randy sadly holding the very last onion before he adds it to the dinner.

Randy sadly holding the very last onion before he adds it to the dinner that evening.

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(See prior post for the introduction to this continuation.)

In our previous house, an off-grid, passive solar house that I designed and built, we were blessed to live across the rocky dirt road from a Tibetan Buddhist community. Their gold-gilt stupa framed our view of the Truchus Mountains to the south. We are not Buddhist, but we sure loved having Buddhist neighbors. Our closest neighbors, and dearest friends, were both ordained Buddhist lamas. They were also old hippies who cussed and farted and complained liked the best of us. No halos there! We loved them fiercely and still do.

A view we will always miss.

A view we will always miss.

One of the biggest points of contention between us was the fact that they would kill nothing – not even flies in their house. Yet they ate meat. I would tell them that was hypocritical! How could they eat the flesh of an animal someone else killed when they believed they should never kill another sentient being? Apparently it had to do with karma, and they wanted their karma to be clean. So I would razz them and say, “But it’s OK for someone else to taint their karma so that you can keep yours clean while eating a fat steak? Sorry, but that just doesn’t work for me.” We would always laugh and slap each other lovingly on the back afterwards, and in time we just stopped having that conversation. I respected their beliefs, even if they weren’t always my own.

This couple also worked in an assisted living facility. They cared for the old folks there, changed their diapers, sponged their atrophied limbs, and gave them emotional support. Sometimes they helped them die, just holding their hand until their spirit passed from their tired, shriveled bodies. And when the health of their old dog began to fail, they were perfectly prepared to midwife Kunga’s spirit into the next world too. I said, “Aren’t you going to have him put down?” But they refused, saying that everyone deserves the respect and patience of their loved ones to die on their own time line, when they are good and ready. And so they changed the pad under Kunga’s body and washed the poop from his fur – for months. And final Kunga was ready to pass on. On his own schedule.

When our time came and each of our 3 ailing dogs in turn became crippled with old age and cancer, we spoke to our vet at each visit. When will we know? She said, “They will tell you when it’s time. You will know.” And she came to our house each time and sat on the floor with us, holding the empty syringe, and our fragile hearts, as our canine children left us one by one. Were we wrong to take their time of death into our own hands? Was it for their comfort, or our own? They were suffering certainly. But perhaps they had the right to walk their own paths – the right to suffer their own pain. Perhaps that was their way of preparing for leaving this world. But it was breaking MY heart to watch. Selfish? I don’t know.

A friend sent me part of an interview with Susun Weed where she talks about killing her goats. Here is the link to the full interview, and here are some poignant excerpts:

Can you describe how you slaughter your goats?

 I would never slaughter anything.  I am a woman. I give birth. I give death. I am Kali, dancing through birth, life and death. I do not slaughter, kill, murder, or take life. I give the gift of death.

The giving of death is a sacred rite. We are very serious about it. We never threaten death for misbehavior. We set the date for giving death and tell the animal when it will be. We invite the soul or spirit of the goat to get ready to go; pack your bags!

 (Susan then explains the ritual she has adapted for the process of “giving” death, and finishes with a story….)

It’s not easy. At the opening talking stick with the thirty women in my German apprentice group, all but one of them complained: “Why are you asking us do this terrible thing of giving death?” The last woman said: “I have come to this apprenticeship because I want to learn to give death. I keep a herd of sheep and I can’t stand it anymore to have to hire a man with a gun to slaughter them.” When the day came, three weeks later, to give death to the rabbits we had tended, verbal battles ensued because so many women wanted to be She-who-holds-the-knife. They understood the value of what I asked.

I believe that death is a peaceful process – the act of the soul actually leaving our physical bodies. I believe it can be a true gift to be free of our cumbersome earthly existences and the pain and suffering of life on this plane. And so much of what Susun expresses resonates with me. But I struggle with the vocabulary of “giving” death. Since I have also made sure my goat had an enjoyable life, who am I to say he wants my “gift”? Who am I to chose the date for him?

Yes I am a mother, and for all practical purposes, Bucky’s mother. I bottle fed him from 10 days old forward, weened him, and have fed and watered him twice daily since (or seen to it that he was). I have insisted he is healthy, happy, has plenty of exercise, shelter, respect, and even affection. So as his mother, I do feel I have more than the average right to take away his life too. Is that the Goddess Kali speaking through me? The Creator and the Destroyer? The Birther and the Burier?

Giving birth to a child is the most potent thing I have ever experienced. I could feel the raw power of all women before me surging in every contraction, every push, in the fiery burn and tearing of flesh – my flesh – as each of my children entered this world. One dead. One alive. And was my son’s death a “gift” I gave him? Bad question for a mom who has lost a child at birth, unless you want to see all the anger of every woman who has lost a child before me channeled through my trembling body. I know some believe that souls have contracts with each other, and destinies can be decided long before we inhabit our bodies. But the thought that my soul would have agreed to lose my first born is a hard one for me to swallow. Maybe. I am not saying it’s impossible. But my current incarnation does not have a memory of signing those divine papers.

And what about Bucky? Did our souls make a contract too? Did he choose me to be his human mommy, like my human children did? Was his death by my hand on Saturday, January 26th, 2013 his pre-ordained soul choice?

I never thought the harvesting of a goat could bring forth so much emotion and deliberation in myself and my readers. I thought it would be a pretty simple thing when I led 10 day old Bucky into his new home behind his cousin and aunt, and dutifully warmed his 4 daily bottles of auntie milk. After all, he was so obnoxious, and so goofy looking with his horrid conformation and overbite. But as a young adult, he’s become quite sweet. I think I will even miss him.

Getting a goaty kiss from a week old Buckbeak, AKA: Bucky.

Getting a goaty kiss from a week old Buckbeak, AKA: Bucky.

So it seems the extra week I have given back to myself is for a reason. It gives me time to fully look into all my resistance and dread, my extreme discomfort, delve into the process of death itself, prepare Bucky (for I do, now, intend to tell him), learn to shoot the gun which I have never fired (that will be tomorrow), ground myself, center myself, and put forth my intention. With the help of friends’ (and strangers) comments, questions and listening ears, I am feeling calmer each day as the count down continues. The processing helps me tremendously. And with this additional time for introspection, I have learned where my stubbornness is coming from.

Why do I really feel I have to do this? Be the one to pull the trigger or draw the knife? It is a rite of passage of course. As was giving birth…. giving life. And like Kali, I too, can take life away, to give that life to feed my family and myself. Because when the nanny berries hit the fan, I want to know I have the guts. I want to know I can provide. I want to know I can care for my brood, my herd, my child and husband. That I have what it might take. For that is what Mother means to me. THE Mother. The Giver. The Taker.

AND….. the Nurturer.

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My head was splitting as I switched on the light in the kitchen. Ouch. Worse. I put on a kettle of water and glanced at the clock. 5:56am.

I’d been awake since 2:15am, tossing, turning, stressing and sobbing silently in our family bed. Finally, I disentangled Isla’s thin, warm limbs from my own and rolled out of our toasty nest of tossled sheets, down comforter and quilt. I left behind my tear sodden pillow and stumbled into the dark bathroom. Randy turned over, probably aware in some deep land of slumber that my exit at this early hour meant he had escaped milking duty. I blew the snot from my nose and dried my red, burning eyes. I had to do it today. I could not live another week with this monumental deed weighing so heavily on my shoulders. Bucky had to go. NOW.

THIS MORNING.

Coffee grounds pattered softly into the glass bodum carafe. The choice of coffee over my usual pot of green tea was indicative of how horrid I felt. My mind replayed all the images of my sleepless night as the steam rushed upward from the boiling water…

…The muzzle of my father’s gun placed just below the knob of Bucky’s horn buds… my trigger finger taking up the tension and slowly pulling back towards my sweaty palm… Bucky innocently nibbling at the pile of choice grain I had piled on the ground for him, his fuzzy little head with the wanky right ear bobbing enthusiastically, happy to be eating alone without the constant interference of his herd. And then, the ear splitting sound of the discharge and the rude slam of the butt against my right shoulder.

And then what? Would the bullet blow his head apart? How much blood would there be? Would he drop immediately? Would he struggle? Would I drop the gun and collapse in a sobbing heap in the blood splattered snow? Or, my biggest dread of all – would I miss and merely injure him, putting him through extreme pain and suffering before I could still my shaking hands and finally shoot true?

Why in the hell had I said I would pull the trigger?

This had been a joint decision to purchase and raise a meat goat. Randy and I felt it was an important aspect of homesteading. Although we had both been vegetarians for 10 years, we were now carnivores and believed we should take responsibility for our carnivorous choices. So, where did my partner disappear to? Why was I the one researching the best way to angle the bullet into the goat’s skull and how to skin, gut and butcher the goat afterwards? Why was I the one planning the morbid chore, sharpening my buck knife, gathering my support group and setting the date?

As I chugged my black coffee, a sleepy Isla straggled out of bed, looking like a jailbird in striped pajamas, and insisted on accompanying me to the barn in the 4 degree pre-dawn. Once the fresh milk had been strained and chilled, and Isla was warming up in the bath, I unexpectedly got the apology I did not even know I needed. Desperately needed. Funny how that works. And funny how once that apology came, the emotions I had not yet identified came rushing out in angry words.

Randy leaned against the blast from my sleep deprived, Scottish-Irish temper, then calmly admitted that he had been “checking out” around the impending slaughter day. Simply put, he was dreadfully uncomfortable about it. His admission and apology quickly defused my wrath as I realized this was one of the many things I loved about him – he was sensitive and emotional. Sure, he could whack off the heads of the mean, rapist roosters – but he hated doing it. We usually didn’t eat meat for a week or 2 afterwards. And shooting a sweet, innocent goat was different from beheading a nasty rooster. We both knew this was true. This was my gentle bear of a partner – all 6′-3″ of him. And I would not want him any other way. I also remembered that I had been forewarned. He had told me from the beginning that someone else would need to pull the trigger as he was not up for that challenge. Our argument was concluded with his promise that he would not abandon me next weekend, and that promise washed away the remaining fire in my hazel eyes.

And then the processing began….

Everything has to eat, as Isla will tell you, and we have chosen to be meat eaters. The majority of our species is right along there beside us. But we are not animals – we are emotional beings. So we do everything possible to distance ourselves from what being carnivorous really means. We do not want to feel uncomfortable about the choices we are making. Animals are totally renamed to start with. Cows transmogrify into “beef” once the processing plant takes over. Pigs miraculously change into “pork”, “ham” and “bacon”. Even the wild deer leaping freely through it’s native forest becomes “venison” once it’s antlers scrape the frozen earth and lay still. (Yet chicken remains chicken and fish remains fish…. is it only the 4-legged ones we rename for our emotional comfort?)

We wheel our wire baskets through aisles of fluorescent-lit boxes, cans, vegetables, and – oop! There’s that neat little pink lump all sanitarily plastic wrapped on a styrofoam tray, nuzzling the laundry detergent, and peeking shyly from behind a bag of frozen broccoli florets. Um… HELLOOOOOO. That is COW. A COW part. In your shopping cart. Right THERE. That hunk of FLESH was mooing a week or 2 ago. Let’s hope it was a happy moo. Let’s hope it was raised with respect, on open pasture, without growth hormones and antibiotics. Let’s hope it was slaughtered humanely. Or did that COW live it’s short, pathetic life in a filthy feed lot, so jammed with other COWS that the sick ones could not even fall to the manure caked earth? Did that COW ever even know what grass was? And was it carried to the slaughter pen in the bucket of a front end loader because it was so weak and sick it couldn’t walk there on it’s own power? If it doesn’t say “organic” and “pasture raised” on it, you can bet it led the latter sorry life.

No, I am not making these scenarios up. And yes, I still eat meat. Organically grown, pastured meat. Preferably raised locally. But even these choices have not felt like enough lately. I want to know FOR SURE how the meat I eat is raised, treated, and harvested. And the only way to do that is raise and kill the animal yourself.

So here we are, looking down the gun barrel of our first 4-legged domestic animal slaughter: Our Bucky, AKA: Buckster, Buckmeat, Buckmeister.

Randy says, “You should never name and love an animal you plan to eat.” I say, “Why should Bucky be treated differently from Hazelnut and Fiona, just because he will be eaten instead of milked? I could never shut my heart off to him while opening it to the other goats.”

And Randy says (hypothetically), “Why can’t we just sell him to someone else and they can eat him?” And I say, “Because he is OUR Bucky and we have made a huge investment in him both financially and emotionally. And how do I know the next owner won’t abuse him before they kill him in some UNrespectful and UNhumane fashion?”

And my friend says, “Why don’t you just keep him instead of eating him?” And I say, “Because we can not afford to keep a farm animal who does not pay rent in some way. I am not interested in supporting another pet.”

And my friend says, “I heard that women should really not be the ones who do the slaughtering. They are the mothers, the nurturers. The men should do the killing.” And I say, “That may be true, but it is also the women who get things done. Woman are practical. Women are mother bears. They can do what is needed to be done.”

And Randy says, “We need time to prepare. Let’s keep it scheduled for next Saturday like we had planned.” And I sigh, and say, “OK. I can wait, now that I have processed through this truck full of emotions.”

And Randy says, “It obviously upsets you terribly, Sweetie. You know you don’t have to do this.” And I say, “Discomfort has seldom stopped me from doing what I feel is right. I have a belief and I need to see if I can support it. I can not just sit down and let myself be paralyzed by fear.”

And Randy says, “Why don’t we just let Justin shoot him? He’s a law enforcement ranger and was raised on a farm.” And I say, “I sure would like Justin to be there for support, and a second shot if it’s needed. But this is just something I have to experience. I just need to do it myself.”

And I think I can. I hope I can. At the least… I can try. For the knowledge that I can be accountable and responsible for the choices I make so offhandedly. For Bucky, as strange as that may sound. For my family.

But most of all…. for myself.

Bucky

Bucky

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She did it! My wee Nugget, my Isla Elizabeth, the light of my heart and life, my sweet pea of 3yrs and 8 months, made it through a full 6 hr day at our local Waldorf school, without any tears and no calls to Mama from the teacher!

Heading to the car for her first day at school!

Heading to the car for her first day at school!

I can not, however, say the same for Mommy. Yes, I shed quite a few tears, and thought of her constantly, and had butterflies in my stomach as I sped north to pick her up at 2:45….. but at least I did not call the teacher. I almost did. I reached for the phone several times. But each time I breathed deeply and set it back down… and distracted myself – just like I told her to do if she missed me.

We tried the last school year – 8 consecutive tries which stretched into Oct of ’11. But she just could not stay alone, and I could no longer spend the days with her at school. If she wasn’t ready, then she wasn’t ready. There was no need to force it. We said we would talk about it again after Christmas… but she wasn’t ready then either. We said we would talk about it this past August… but she still wasn’t ready. But after 4 weeks in Reno, NV in November, spending every day with Papa riding bikes and playing with other children at the nearby playground, she was READY. She REALLY wanted time with other kids. And most of her friends were in school, which meant they had no time for playdates.

We were in Reno for my Lyme treatment. I thought I could get through this latest relapse on my own, without the help of my usual, trusted clinic. But I just could not get back on my feet at any level of functionality that would work for me. 50% of the norm is not acceptable, especially when you consider what the “norm” looks like for someone with Chronic Lyme. So we packed up the family and left the farm for an entire 5  1/2 weeks. We split up the drive west with a stop in Zion National Park, and the drive back east with a visit with the Grands. And while I read in a reclining chair with an IV dripping salvation slowly into my veins, received multiple daily injections, colonics, lymphatic drainage treatments, chiropractic appointments, and a series of tests that seemed to have no end, Randy became Mr. Mom – full time. Because I was not even available at night, due to the reaction to the treatment. I’ll spare you the treatment details as they were not fun, but the result was Isla and Randy developed a strong father-daughter bond and she became a pro on her balance bike! Nothing like a bit of pavement and bike paths to really open up the world to a kid and her dad.

One afternoon when I returned from the clinic, Isla rushed into my arms. “Mama! I played with a great big black girl today on the slides!” I chuckled and said, “Do you mean the girl was bigger than you and had dark skin?” This translation was confirmed and I was entertained for some time with each and every detail of their time together. Living in a town where there are few Afro-Americans, I was tickled at her excitement and experience. And each day there was a new story of her adventures with new kids – different ages, different genders and different ethnic backgrounds – many not even sharing a common language with my daughter.

One evening I was sitting in bed with a book, feeling like I had been run over by a mack truck, when she quietly walked in and climbed into bed with me. “I wish I could make your Lyme go away Mama,” she said softly. “Can I read next to you?” I nodded with a smile and brushed away my tears. She pulled out her book and started to look through the pages next to me. The uncharacteristic stillness caused me to glance down at my little clone, and I noticed she was staring into space, deep in thought over some dilemma, the same scowl of concentration on her face I so often wear on my own. “Mama?” she said. “I think I need a bruthah. Could you find a little boy without any parents to be my bruthah?”

This request is a bit more poignant than it might seem as she had had a brother who had died at birth. And it wasn’t the first time she has requested a sibling. With me at 50 and Randy… ah, snipped, we won’t be producing any siblings the “natural” way. But what it made me realize, was that she was lonely. As an only child, staying at home with mommy most days, she was craving playmates.

As we drove homeward across the hundreds of miles of basin and range, Randy and I had a lot of time to talk (when we weren’t listening to Charlotte’s Wed or Little House on the Prairie). We discussed getting back into foster care again – Isla was old enough now. And we discussed updating our homestudy for adoption – because you never know when a baby might miraculously fall from the sky into your waiting arms, right? We could never afford the normal adoption-through-an-agency route. We have learned over the years between the loss of Isla’s older brother and her own arrival, adoption is for rich folk… which we are not. But a private adoption….. we might be able to handle. Or an adoption through foster care.

It’s much more complicated than I make it sound, but the bottom line was… it was time. Time to try school again. And I had decided a year and a half ago that there was only one school I felt I could trust with the care of my darling child – Waldorf. We first discovered the Taos Waldorf School when we cared for a 10 yr old foster child who was in 3rd grade there. I fell in love with the school immediately. And over 4 yrs later, I still cry when I go there. I don’t know what it is – the safety? The nurturing environment? The animals, gardens, greenhouse, apiary and orchards? The teachers exuding love? The simple environment based in Nature? The smell of fresh baked bread and simmering soup? I want to regress and become a child and feed “Cookies and Cream”, the enormous angora rabbit, or milk the nubian goats, or pet the ducks and chickens, or walk to the “magic grove” and climb into the massive arms of the old cottonwood tree, like climbing back into my mother’s lap.

But there were two obstacles: money, and an available spot. I waited patiently until school was back in session from the holidays before calling to inquire. And I was greatly relieved to learn that there WAS a space available for the Tues/Thurs attendance I hoped for. Wew! One down….

Next was money – being a private school with no funding to speak of, the only way we could afford it was if I could find work. Ah, that would be… PAYING work. And that is no easy task when you have a VERY limited number of specific hours in which you are available to work. Thankfully, the Universe seemed determined to support this monumental change in our family’s lives. A dear friend was loosing her nanny, right at the same time Isla was beginning school. She needed someone to care for her 1 yr old so she could continue her own career, telecommuting from home. And her hours were flexible, and enough. Good thing I adore her wee lassie as I have not been paid that little is a very, very long time. Even my own 17 yr old babysitter chastised me and said I should not take less than $15/hr. “But dear, I pay YOU 10 an hour.” “Yes, but I am 17 and you are 50, MacLaren – with a child!” But this is all a mute point as I am not interested in starting up my old business designing houses (for $45/hr), nor would I be able to with so few hours available. The important thing is when all is said and done, I come out about $2 ahead per month. Or something like that. It sits uncomfortably in my gut, but I can deal.

And so, Isla had her first day at school last week, with mama of course – a re-introductory visit day. But yesterday, she stayed the full day, WITHOUT me! I was beaming with pride from ear to ear! I played with her after school in the frigid playground, and treated her to a decaf chai at her favorite cafe. She spewed a non-stop string of stories from her day, stopping only to guzzle her well earned beverage. Her whole demeanor seemed to have shifted. She was cooperative and polite with me, thanking me over and over for taking her to school. I could not stop smiling. She seemed so different – so grown up.

And Randy brought her home a beautiful pink rose and big hugs of congratulations. It is so hard to believe that she really did it! And tomorrow is day 2 and she can barely wait. Sigh…

I can’t deny it anymore. It’s true! Our bonnie wee lassie is growing up!

Isla's congratulatory tostada dinner complete with a pink rose from Papa!

Isla’s congratulatory tostada dinner complete with a pink rose from Papa!

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A perfect evening I almost missed.

I was on my way to the bath, 2 fingers of single malt scotch over 2 cubes of ice, tinkling in my hand. I was behind the Lyme curtain, in a haze of achy joints and muscles, exhausted from just making it through another day of mommyhood and farm life. All I could think of was BATH. ACETAMINOPHEN. SCOTCH. But I looked back…. and saw…. Randy, who was also exhausted from a hard day of work, still in his BLM uniform, unshowered, running hot water in the sink to tackle 24 hrs worth of dishes… then feed the animals… and then cook dinner… while keeping an eye on Isla. All while I was in the tub. Crap. I may be in a Lyme relapse, but that was just plain unfair.

“How about if I feed the animals first honey?” He turned towards me with gratefulness in his eyes. Gratefulness. Not resentment. Not sarcasm. Not anger. That is this man I married. “That would be great,” he smiled. “Thanks.”

And that was how my perfect evening began.

I truly thought I was still going to the bath, but before I knew it, Isla and I were filling water tubes and petting the goaties and counting eggs into the basket. For the first time I let Isla scoop out the grain rations herself and mix them in the big red bowl. I have been working hard on this – resisting the urge to be a helicopter mom. And I fought the urge then to look over my shoulder and instruct and micromanage. To my proud delight – I won my internal battle by busying myself tossing hay flakes to the goats. Then Isla filled chicken feed tubes and scattered scratch while I set things up for morning milking. We got lost collecting perfect turkey feathers that Thomas has been moulting – snow white with flat, black tips. I have an idea of selling them on EBay one day. We did our best to pet Noche, our one and only 2012 chick, but she is still rather skittish. (At least we hope she is a she.) Then we dropped the eggs off in the kitchen and I retrieved my scotch to follow Isla around the yard on her balance bike.

“Watch me Mama!” She careened around the garden fence with no chance of Mama catching her. That girl needs a pedal bike, I thought. Molly, the Pyrenees, did a much better job of keeping up than I. Randy had wandered out into the garden with our big metal harvest bowl to get some veggies for dinner. I stopped and we talked about our days while leaning on the fence. Isla yelled to me from behind the chicken coop, still waiting for me to watch her. (!!!) I walked slowly around the corner of our 3 Sisters patch and commented on 2 new winter squash fruits getting started on the edges. No telling what was happening in the middle – it was an absolute jungle of red flint corn, Taos Pueblo red beans, winter squash and amish pumpkins. The paths I had carefully raked in Spring, had disappeared in July. I’ll have to remember to give the plants a more generous spacing next summer. On the east run of fencing I leaned over and checked the Calypso beans. A few pods were dry. They were ready to begin harvesting. Isla adores shelling the colorful dried beans. And there is something so satisfying about digging your hands into a bowl of hard, cool, shiny, colorful beans – Ireland Creek Annie (greenish-white), Calypso (black and white) and the Taos red beans (brick red) – and hearing the shooshing and tinkling sounds as they bounce back into their ceramic bowl.

I rendezvoused back with Isla near the play set. We watched a large spider in it’s hole for a few minutes. I thought it might be a tarantula, but it was not. But we did coax it an inch or so out into the light. And then I offered to push my nugget on her swing. This may seem like a normal occurrence, but the truth is that it’s rare. Randy is the one who swings her in the evening when he comes home. I am too busy working around the farm or house in the days, or too tired in the evenings. I have never been one of those “make and do” sort of moms who has time for activities with my child. Isla and I spend our time together doing house or farm chores. She has her own broom and mop, her own tool belt with real tools, her own rake and shovel. When we muck out the coop, we do it together, filling her wheel barrow first and then mine. And in the rare moments I can read a mommy-farm blog, I savour in the fantasy of being like them – art and sewing projects, music time, general creativity. But I am not, sigh. That was why this moment was so very sweet and special.

We counted the swings together to 30 and then she pumped her legs and swung herself. Randy and I chatted more through the 7′ high sunflowers. Isabelle and Thomas flapped their prehistoric wings up to their roosts, and watched us from their bleachers, pink wattles wagging as they retained their balance. The Tommys alighted one after another, sidestepping closer to mom. Then Father sun dropped below the low western clouds and lit the landscape with a sudden shot of alpine glow. It was like a pink filter had been dropped over my eyes. I sat in the second swing and Isla slowed beside me. And for the next 15 minutes we watched the spectacular scene, side by side, as it changed from moment to moment, making sure we checked over our shoulders as well. The swatch of dusty rose tiptoed up the mountains at our backs, and launched off the top off Taos Mountain into lavender and powder blue. The setting sun said goodnight, leaving the horizon blazing in neon salmon, hot yellow, and smears of blueberry. A curtain of pale purple virga reached its fingers toward the parched desert land, but was intercepted by the low relative humidity, never realizing it’s distant goal. Too bad for our garden, but stunning to our eyes. A baker’s dozen of grackles flapped over our heads heading to their roost on the eastern hills. Thomas gobbled. Molly barked. Willie crowed. And in perfect synch, Jay Jay, the neighborhood’s donkey let loose a rusty, winding bray! The scent of grilling burgers reached my nose – burgers from the 1/4 cow we buy each year – local, organic and pasture raised. And grilling slabs of zucchini – I could smell them too. The color slowly faded from the sky, starting from behind us and retreating over our heads toward the west.

“Let’s go set the table Sweetpea.” This was Isla new responsibility, since the child proof lock had busted on the silverware drawer and she was cutting with sharp knives now anyway. She also decided to start filling all 3 of our water cups for meals as well. She can reach the water dispenser on the fridge and the enamel camping cups are pretty safe to carry. So what if I skate through a river of spilled water – she is learning and she feels valued and responsible. That’s what tile floors are for. Then we grabbed the flashlight and went back to the barn to put everyone to bed.

With Hazelnut in her new stall, and the kids busy chowing on the grain in theirs, Isla was able to give Bucky a big hug. As he is usually too rambunctious and nibbly, this was a very sweet moment. Bucky is soon to be our freezer goat and Isla knows we need to give him lots of love now, as we’ll be eating him this winter. Fiona, our doeling, is an easy snuggler, always gentle and willing, and she responded to her attention with the usual love in her brown eyes. Then together we counted the chickens through the coop window and latched their coop door and fence door. We said goodnight to the turkeys as we passed quickly beneath them, reaching high to touch each one lightly on his or her tail or breast. Then we headed back to the house, hand in hand in the darkening twilight.

As I paused to drink in the night, count the stars and heft my daughter to my hip, I thought, “This was such a perfect night. Sure, hot baths are great too, but this was…… PERFECTION.”

And to think that I had almost missed it.

August garden

Isabelle with a Tommy under each wing facing opposite directions

Another spectacular high desert sunset from our farm

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For my 50th birthday, I got a new pair of telemark ski boots from my husband! And generous birthday checks from my dad and in-laws. And I might be getting some financial help from a certain little brother towards the purchase of a compound bow. I organized a 3 day raft trip for my family and a handful of friends and ate my favorite flourless chocolate cake, complete with candles, on the banks of the river. All for my celebration of turning half a century.

And I also got a relapse of my Chronic Lyme Disease. I don’t remember asking for THAT gift…. Or did I?

It’s easy to see how I “set myself up” in hindsight, but very difficult to push away denial in the moment as the freight train is barreling through the mountain pass. The freight train I speak of would be my life and the mountain pass all the distractions in it’s path. I can look back now, as I groan from the deep aching pains in my muscles and joints, and see how I created my own perfect storm.

Yup…. It really started with Spring…. or maybe even late winter when the construction of the pole barn for the goats began… Those were fun and exciting days, but also stressful, as we had a deadline of when the goats were arriving. Stress is a killer for those of us with CLD (Chronic Lyme Disease). Six consecutive weekends of work parties with supportive friends completed our barn raising. I was either with the boys slinging my hammer, or in the house with Isla preparing a mid day feast for the crowd. I was also the project boss – in charge of design and being sure the materials were all on hand for the day of work. It was exhilarating to watch MY barn slowly raise up from the snowy ground… but stressful and exhausting too.

Then came the goats and my goat-owner-trial-by-fire began. Intense! This was all MY thing, a long time dream of mine. Randy did not want the goats. I struggled alone through fear and worry as I taught myself to milk the mama, bottle feed 2 kids, and keep them happy and safe.

Next was garden time. This began with the planting of indoor starters, tilling and raking beds in prep for planting the garden, and a new garden addition that was around 400 to 500 square feet. In our horrific soil we have to hand spade the ground first to break it, then till in 2 directions, then rake out rocks, then add whatever supplement of compost we have, then till a third time, then rake the soil into raised beds creating the paths, then plant, and THEN set up the drip irrigation! Oh, I forgot fencing. Randy handled the new fencing and 3/4 of the spading, but I did the rest. And that was just plain STUPID. I do enjoy pushing myself hard when my health is holding, but this was idiotic. I overdid it for many weekends in a row, as well as weekdays when I had the energy. While I was wrestling with the tiller in the garden addition, Randy planted ALL of the massive garden single handedly. Then I planted the addition. And I think that was when my Borrelia burgdorferi began to yawn, stretch and rub it’s sleepy eyes.

In the midst of the garden work the chicken coop was moved beside the barn with the help of 8 strong hands, and fencing was placed around it to separate goats and chickens. Soon after I found a pair of Royal Palm turkeys for trade and brought them home. Not a lot of stress and physical labor getting the dog house moved into the goat pen for the turkeys and getting them established. But certainly some.

But then the poultry drama really began. I brought home a borrowed broody bird and settled her into the broody house on top of 5 of our eggs and 18 expensive, rare breed, bought eggs. While she set on her clutch, the turkey hen went broody and began to set on a total of 18 eggs. 3 of our 5 chicken eggs hatched and a big ZERO of the 18 bought eggs. So I hustled around to two different feed stores and brought home 14 babies to tuck under the mama’s wing. After the addition of 17 chicks to our flock, the 3 chick deaths were sad, but not unexpected. But the gray fox that managed to get into the pen and kill 14 chicks and the mom – now that laid a MASSIVE emotional burden on my shoulders. And the Lyme spirochetes, hiding deep in the cells of my draining body, were on alert – they knew a chance may be coming soon for them to pounce once more.

Grief and Guilt drove me to long hours of further wrapping of the pen, securing it from all angles and heights. And creating a pen around the poultry nursery to keep goat kids from jumping off the roofs of the broody houses. Turkey poults hatched, but only five. Two of the five died leaving us with three. I was sad and disappointed. A second broody bird was borrowed and brought home to sit on top of 12 of our eggs. Meanwhile a woman in WI supposedly put 20 or so of her rare breed eggs into her incubator for me. The plan was to ship us the day old chicks who’s age would be within a day or two of the chicks hatched on our farm. But only ONE of our 12 eggs hatched and the woman in WI never put the eggs in her incubator. And she never bothered to tell me!

My plan was to double my flock this year introducing some rare breeds who laid dark chocolate brown eggs, more Americaunas (the blue-green egg layers), and some white eggs layers. AND a batch of turkey poults to sell for Thanksgiving dinners. One turkey hen will go back to the original owners of the turkey pair as agreed, one hen we would like to keep for breeding, and one turkey would be for our table. But we still don’t know the sexes. Doubtful we’ll be making any money there however, unless they are all toms. And as for doubling my chicken flock – Ha! From all the stress, loss, efforts and money invested, we end up with ONE CHICK. The joke between Randy and I is that it will probably grow up to be a rooster. However, we have LOST 2 laying hens this year to natural deaths (non-predator related), so it’s not looking good for an increase in egg production on our farm. As I write all this down, I realize I have not given the year’s poultry stresses enough weight in the Lyme equation. I think the cumulation has contributed a great deal towards this current relapse.

A year and a half ago, Randy asked what I wanted to do for my 50th birthday. Without hesitation, I said, “A raft trip down the Chama River with all my friends!” It sounded like the perfect birthday celebration! We got our permit application into the lottery in time, and were drawn for the requested weekend. The trip was on. I am the planner/organizer of the family and I LOVE doing it! All the projects and undertakings mentioned above were at my urging and pushing. Randy is garden boss, I am animal boss. And of course there is overlap. But when it comes to overall farm planning, I am self-proclaimed boss of all. (That was why I ended up doing the majority of the garden addition. It was MY idea.) Plus, when I was pregnant with Isla, it was agreed: We would buy land, create a little urban homestead, and I would run the farm and raise our daughter at home. And 3 years later, here I find myself, running our farm and raising our daughter, living the life I dreamed of. But if this career is going to work for me, I am going to have to learn to live without having ALL of my goals and dreams manifested over night.

But back to the river. The time was finally upon us and my Big 5-0 loomed in the very near future. Invites were sent out several months in advance, gear organized, menus planned and shuttles arranged. 3 weeks before launch, one family of 3 bailed. I was sad as I was looking forward to getting to know them better. We have a lot of interests in common and their daughter is only 5 months older than ours. The day before launch, my dear friend and her family of 4 had to bail as her 16 yr old was horribly ill. I was extremely sad they were canceling. I had been so looking forward to initiating them into the rafting life style and sharing this part of my life and passion with them all.

In the week leading up to launch, there seemed to be no end to the last minutes projects that needed to be completed before leaving. The turkey poults were passing easily through the chain link nursery fence, leaving their distressed mother behind. And one even continued right through the stucco netting of the goat pen out into the free world! That would NOT do! So the nursery chain link needed to be wrapped with smaller holed poultry netting and wired on. The drip irrigation needed to be finished on the garden addition and re-routed to become a 4th irrigation zone on it’s own. The garden needed harvesting and the access processed and in the freezer (a MASSIVE job). Weeding needed to be done and squash bugs had to be picked off by hand before they devastated our crop. River gear needed going through, the menu planned and bought for, and all group gear packed. Then our personal gear needed packing. THEN the house needed to be cleaned for the house sitter, and my house sitter novella edited for goats and turkeys.

It then occurred to me this was the first time we had left the farm since getting the goats and the turkeys! No WONDER I was feeling such panic and stress! I was leaving my newest babies in the care of another for 4 days. Any number of horrors could befall them in that short interval.

Three days before launch I felt the fear swirling into the dark depth of my chest. Using good judgement, I paid a friend to come help me with Isla and processing the harvest. Then again to clean the house. And I also commandeered another friend to help out over the final 2 days with whatever needed doing. The night before our final prep day there was no more denying it. I KNEW I was in trouble. I could feel the deep aching in my body, sensed the depression flooding in extinguishing all my internal fire, and a depth of exhaustion that was frightenly familiar. The warning bells began to ring. LOUDLY.

But what could I do then? I persevered… I couldn’t bail on my own trip! I busted my ass for the final prep and pack day and we drove away from the farm that evening, my heart aching with fear, my body aching from the attacking spirochetes. We spent the night in a cabin at the launch site and the next morning was more ass busting of rigging rafts, re-packing gear, and packing it all on the rafts. As the organizer I was feeling completely overwhelmed and (dare I say it?) honestly, so very relieved that 2 families had bailed and we were down to only 10. If our poor 16 yr old baby-sitter had not gotten deathly ill, causing her whole family to stay home, I would have been rowing an additional raft myself WHILE taking care of my 3 yr old and the group! I do not know if I could have done it in the state of decline I was already in.

And then on the river…. the blessed river…. which is usually my place to relax and recharge. Randy brought to my appalled attention that this was my first time organizing and being the “leader” of a group raft trip of more than 4 people. What? How could that be? Really? And we had started the trip with 17! Yet one more reason for my emotional and physical overwhelm and exhaustion. I was a wreck internally, while doing my best not to show it externally. Unfortunately for my family, Randy and Isla saw plenty of my wretchedness as my crankiness spilled out sideways in their directions. And it rained, and rained, and rained on the trip. It was the wettest Chama trip I remember in my history of 7 trips down. Isla was needy and difficult, certainly reacting to my own neediness and stress. And I was exhausted and concerned about everything running smoothly. It was hard. I was so relieved to discover that everyone else had had a great time, despite the rain! But the bummer for me was that this trip was my birthday trip and I did NOT have a good time. Because I was completely wasted and taking a full face plant into my current relapse of Lyme.

Lyme sucks. There is no other way to say it. One of the hardest things is that you look fine on the surface, so you just appear to be a lazy, cranky, complaining human suffering hypochondriac delusions. Being a person who thrives with goals and projects to constantly be working on, it hits me where it hurts most. It dumps a big bucket of river water on all my fiery passion. I drops me into depression and apathy. I was so down after we returned from the river that I didn’t even want to check if any chicks had hatched. That says a lot.

Many people ask “How do you feel?” or “How do your symptoms manifest?” Well, I know it is a bit different for each individual, but for me, the main one is pain. I am used to living with a mild level of chronic pain that never really goes away. But in a relapse the pain is much more intense. It reminds me of the pain that accompanies a very bad flu bug – body aches that leave you writhing and moaning in bed sort of pain. Pain in the muscles, pain in the joints. Arthritic symptoms that are mild in the good times become claw shaped hands in the morning with a relapse. Thank God Randy has taken over morning milkings because my hands hurt so badly in the morning that I am not sure I could do it. Before this relapse I sometimes had to rub my hands under hot water before heading to the barn with the milk pail. I’ll find out in a couple days what lengths I have to go to now, as Randy leaves town Fri for an over night backpacking trip.

Brain fog is a large symptom. My neurological symptoms have always been tough for me. Word choice can be very difficult when speaking. Sometimes I can not finish a sentence, as I stop to work out the next word and then forget what the sentence and thought was about. I walk into a room and can’t remember what the reason was. I can not remember to call people back or return emails. I can’t remember what I am supposed to do. I often forget simple things like brushing my and Isla’s teeth in the morning, or brushing our hair. I feel like I am walking through a thick fog, a dream, a surreal land. Sometimes I hear my own voice as though it’s far away or another person speaking. I can have a thought but can not voice it. Writing can be quite entertaining at times when I go back to edit. There are typos and entire words that aren’t even CLOSE to what I meant to have in their places.

Depression sets in leaving me numb, unmotivated, and apathetic. I feel shame and have a strong sense of self-loathing. I feel like I am a bad person – a bad mother, a bad wife, and bad friend. I feel so dependent and needy that it disgusts me. I feel like a pathetic burden on my friends and husband. I want to isolate and suffer in solitude where I won’t effect anyone else. I want to push people away so they can’t see me like this. Even people close to me. I am dreadfully emotional. I want to crawl into a cave and sob for eternity.

And the exhaustion can be so intense that I can not get out of bed. My kid begs me to get up and I am not sure how to do it. I sit in a filthy house and can’t imagine how I will ever get it clean and organized again. I know I need to do at least SOME work at home but there are days I simply can’t. Nothing.

Fortunately I am describing the worst case scenario days, and they are not all this bad. But I cycle in and out, up and down. Yesterday was a great day! My dearest mama friend and her entire family came over for the day. While her husband worked me over on his massage table for 2 solid hours, my friend took our 3 collective kiddos out to the garden and harvested for an hour or so, then came inside and start dealing with harvest as well as making lunch for us all, and doing the dishes in her wake. They were saviors. I was overflowing with love when they left and felt so very hopeful again. I was able to get a lot done, even after they left!

But today I am paying the piper for too much fun yesterday. I am back at the bottom – not quite in the dregs yet, but hovering only a bit above. The house looks like a cyclone hit it. And I just don’t care.

The other side of Lyme is the Tough Love Teacher. It always has something to teach me, whether I am interested in learning it or not. What I am learning through this relapse is gratitude, forgiveness, humility, gentleness. I am learning to love myself and take this one day at a time. I am learning that no one will die if they have to live in a house that is filthier that the goat barn. I am learning that my husband can actually enjoy milking our goat at 5:30AM! I am learning to stop, breath, feel grateful for all I have – grateful for the water I am drinking, the food I eat from our garden, the fresh milk I make my kefir with. I am learning to reach out to the higher power of my choosing and ask for help, strength, support and guidance on my healing path. I am learning that my friends and community love me and are there for me. I am overwhelmed with the offers of help, the prayers sent, the love poured upon me. I am learning to open my heart and receive these gifts, which is a damn hard thing for a self-sufficient, stubborn, fiery, Scot-Irish girl like myself. I am forgiving myself. I am drinking slow pots of tea. Lots of them. On the porch. While the weeds grow in the garden like Little Shop of Horrors.

OK Lyme Disease – you’ve got me again. But I will do my damnedest to stay afloat and see my glass half full. I open my heart and  embrace your lessons and choose to see this relapse as an opportunity.

An opportunity to learn, heal, and grow.

PS: Good news! I stared this post about a week ago and it has taken some time and energy to edit. But during this editing, I have seen a marked improvement in my energy with a dramatic decrease in my pain. It would appear the protocol I set out for myself is working. I feel very hopeful that I have caught this crash in time. Perhaps I won’t plummet ALL the way down this time around. Keep your fingers crossed for me…..

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“You were heroic Honey,” he said with empathy and tenderness.

Well, I don’t know about heroic. I felt more like… pathetic and helpless. But I tried to let my husband’s complement soothe my shaking muscles.

The storm had started about an hour up the river from the first camp site. The thunder and flashes of lightening warned us for some time as it echoed between the red cliff walls of the Chama River canyon. The rain began lightly, gently, forgiving, granting me the time to pass off the oars and wrestle Isla’s little life jacket off. And then to wrestle back on her rash guard top, rain bibs, and rain jacket, once again zipped all into place with the life jacket. Then myself into my splash gear. Randy, forever the optimist, was a bit more leisurely about digging out his. But the rain settled in getting harder and harder. Then came the hail as the thunder boomed and rolled and the raft rocked it’s way down the rapids…. and Isla fell dead asleep in my arms.

Finally the campsite came into view and Randy bumped the bow of the raft against the willow choked bank, leaping to shore with bowline in hand. Isla slept on. He helped me out and onto, uh, land, but definitely not DRY land. I stumbled up the bank with my 30 lb sack of potatoes held in arms that had gone numb 30 minutes prior, and staggered towards the thickest juniper tree canopy I saw. Thankfully, there was a limb just at the height of Isla’s butt. That took a bit of her weight off me but not much. As the hail returned with an ernest will, exploding sprays of slush off my daughter’s wee head, I noted that Bonita, our trip mascot, had scurried off her raft and under the shelter of Isla’s body to seek refuge from the storm. I was really starting to feel miserable by this time.

The 3rd raft bumped the bank, and the solo duckie, and the boys quickly dug the river wing (group tarp) out of our raft and began fumbling with the massive lump of sodden cloth while flashes of light tore the sky asunder. When enough guys lines were in place to make something to stand under, I ducked beneath the tarp and sank gratefully down into the mud as my child continued to snore in my dead arms. By this time I was shivering violently. Greg, Randy and RG got the tarp staked out in record time and RG hauled a Paco pad (rubberized sleeping mat) up from the shore. With that unrolled I was able to lay my little love lump down, her head 2′ from a new stream that had begun running down the main path through the campsite. This was serious flash flood weather so I kept a close eye on that stream as it had formed in about 30 seconds. More flashing and booming as I tried to make my shaking, cramped body preform. Our dry bag was dropped beside me and I fished out uh, whatever – a rug came first and that worked just fine for a temporary blanket for my wet rat of a baby. Once she was tucked in, so to speak, I dug out the tent, completely at a loss as to how I was going to set it up without turning it first into a wading pool. But I knew my top priority was to get my kid into dry clothes and a warm sleeping bag, my shivering self close on her heels. So I yanked my thinking cap down over my head.

Once I could move around again, blood flow resumed and my shaking quieted. I pulled out poles and snapped them together. I pulled out ground tarps and the tent body and stood staring at them beneath the river wing. I was alone, as the remaining 8 boaters were all taking care of their own stormy dilemmas, and I was pretty helpless to proceed without assistance. When Randy and RG came up with another load of dry bags, I commandeered them to hold the tent fly out as best they could while we ran as a huddled mass to the closest tent site and I fumbled beneath the fly as fast as I could. Poles were whipping against the boy’s frigid bare legs and I was tripping over bundled ground tarps and rip stop nylon. I have no idea how I did it, or how they held their arms outstretched for what felt like eternity, but somehow we got that 4 person tent sort of pitched.

Then Isie woke up, confused and crying. All I could do was haul her back out into the pouring rain to stand and cry beside me while I continued to fumble with the tent with false cheerfulness. “MAAAMAAA! I neeeed you!” The boys helped me when they could but their plate was pretty darn full with all the hauling of gear they had to do and helping others. I found my microfiber camp towel and dried out the interior as best I could, dried off the Paco pads and got them inside, and then I tossed in the stuff sacks of sleeping bags. My sleepy toddler bawled in the downpour as I raced on. All our personal dry bags were into the vestibule, and I could FINALLY zip myself and Isla under cover. Then there was the laborious peeling off of layers while Isla continued to howl and drip in the vestibule. Life jacket, rain coat, sun hat, rain bibs, river shoes peeled off her white water-logged feet, rash guard off, bathing suit, board shorts…. and no seasoned mom would bypass the naked opportunity for relieving their 3 year old’s bladder…. then into cotton PJs, wooly top and bottoms, wooly socks, cashmere hat, and I shoved her gently into the down sleeping bag. With her Sarah doll in one hand and book 7 of Little House on the Prairie in the other, she calmed and settled, snuggling deep into the warmth of her feather nest.

Me next? Oh don’t I wish.

Then I made several more gear trips from the raft to the designated kitchen site under the river wing, and began to set up the group kitchen. Folding tables, stove, propane tanks, water jug, hand wash station, unfolding camp chairs, cooler, food bags, cookware set…. etc. Randy cracked off the top of a bottle of tequila and we each took a swig straight from the bottle. Warmth and peace trickled through my body, one limb at a time. Deep breath. Back to set up. THEN, once I knew everyone else was OK and order was restored and the rain had settled back to a light drizzle, I went to the tent to strip off my own river gear. I still had on my life jacket.

Once in dry clothes, I was immediately on cooking duty to whip up a fajita dinner for 10. A powerful margarita in one hand helped tremendously.

I am no stranger to the river. This was my 7th trip down the Chama alone, not to mention 3 trips down the San Juan, 23 days down the Grand Canyon on a private trip, and countless rivers on the east coast. And it was my second time with my child, last year being her initiation into multi-day river tripping at 2 1/2. But it was my first time organizing a group rafting trip (of more than 4 people) and my first time taking my child rafting with other families. It never occurred to me there would be much of a difference from previous raft trips. I was very comfortable being the organizer and being in charge. But oh my….. nothing like a worst case scenario, as Randy said, to really make the lessons apparent. And the number one lesson was:

1. I could not be a good mother to my child while taking care of 8 other people. Period. And as a self-proclaimed mother hen of all, this was a bitter pill to swallow.

Granted, I doubt they felt they NEEDED to be taken care of, but as the “leader”, I saw this as my responsibility. Fortunately I think everyone had a great time despite the generous doses of daily rain, and it appears my nerves, and patience (with my child) were the only things that truly suffered.

But if I was “heroic”, then I was merely 1 out of 10 heros this past weekend.

Randy, as always, my faithful pack mule, was hauling gear up and down hills, rigging and de-rigging the raft, helping me with cooking, cleaning, tent set up and break down, driving the laden trailer to and from the river, getting the gear to and from the BLM (where he works and the rafting gear is stored – this was a river patrol trip for him), dealing with my stress and crankiness, and still finding time and energy to play with and love our daughter.

RG, manning the ducky, on his second ever river trip, was always our right hand man. He helped me personally at the house for two days prior to even leaving town! There was a tremendous amount of different things that needed to be done from barn and animal project prep to garden harvest and processing, to packing of river gear and meals, to entertaining Isla. He did any and all jobs I laid before him. And on the trip he was constantly there to lend a hand, never shirking, always with a goofy pun ready and a heartfelt laugh, even after dunking into the river and loosing his glasses in the current.

The Gustina family were amazing troopers. I couldn’t believe how tough the girls were, ages 10 and 13. Even when sodden and frozen, initially without rain pants, they sung and giggled their way through the storms, perched on the mountain of gear in the stern of their raft. They were constantly offering to help and showed stoic stamina with Isla’s continuous requests to play doctor. Emily and Greg Gustina seemed to be on constant dish duty in addition to packing up a weekend of delicious lunches. And Greg, the wildlife biologist of the trip, could always give us an interesting factoid of nature.

Leilani, with her 7 months pregnant belly, hefted herself and her bambino about with grace, and was always willing to help watch and entertain Isla for me (a godsent!). While her husband, Justin, did, well, EVERYTHING for the 2 of them as that was the condition on which he agreed to bring her. (Leilani had already been hospitalized for early contractions.) And he STILL had time and energy to sing to us, accompanied by his expert guitar and fiddle playing, and cook two excellent meals.

Weren’t we all heros?

Of course, the trip wasn’t all a sodden, muddy rain fest. We had many memorable sunny moments, or at least rain-free ones. The clouds parted for a rousing all-terrain bocce tournament Sat evening that took us on a wild goose chase through the dripping ponderosas and scrub oak. There was a Yatzee play off under the river wing, and the mandatory music and singing. On a bedtime trip back from the groover (portable river potty system), Isla and I startled a massive toad with the beam of our headlamp, who in turn caused us to jump a few inches off the spongey, needle strewn path. It took two hands to hold the enormous amphibian for a few night time photos. There was the red fox who stared at us furtively from the bank as we drifted past, before slinking behind a bushy juniper. And an adult turkey that flew from a high ponderosa roost on one bank to the opposite shore, it impressive wing span pumping slowly over the drizzly water. Countless families of wild geese were our ever present escorts with babies from wee to teens. And a mother duck with 5 newly hatched ducklings slipped stealthily through a tunnel of overhanging river grass beside our raft. Isla and I found an 18″ river snake at our take-out while the group loaded the trailers and we made drip castles on a mud flat. It was the first snake she had ever touched, feeling it’s muscular length wind itself between her mama’s fingers. Hundreds of swallows darted in and out of their upside down nests of mud stuck fast under cliff overhangs. Red, thread-thin worms wiggled across the glassy surfaces of our mud pies at river side. And there was time for an adventurous hike up a stunning box canyon to it’s dead end pour off of red slick rock. Rocks were collected, bird’s nests found, and sticks turned into ballerinas.

But there are always hardships in our life’s path. So we “suck it up cupcake” and “buck up and deal”. We are all heros at some point along the trail. Because sometime, somewhere, the rain ceases and the storm clouds move aside to reveal the palette of the setting desert sun reflecting off the red and buff cliff walls, and glinting off the tail feathers of that lone golden eagle perched on the grassy knoll, mantling over it’s dinner of black tailed jack. That’s why we do it. That’s why we persevere.

So sure. I’ll embrace my husband’s complement and agree – I was heroic. And today, amidst the aftermath of sore muscles, muddy dry bags and sodden laundry, I am still heroic, for today I turned 50.

And if that ain’t heroic, I don’t know what is.

Rigging the rafts at the put in below El Vado Dam

Isla helps cinch a cam strap

Strapping in the gear

Finally on the river, starting the trip in sun!

A man and his craft. RG (Randy Grubiss)

Isla immediately wanted to help row!

Justin and Leilani Dean, their pup Bonita, and Junior who is due in 2 months

Bonita, the trip mascot

The remains of the Ward Ranch, a historical site that was vandalized by arson in the past year. Heart breaking…

Remains of the stable

Leilani warms up a chilly Isla who insisted on being dunked over the side within 5 minutes of leaving shore.

Captain Roch back at the helm

13 yr old Eila Gustina gets a rowing lesson from her papa, Greg

A family of ducks

At the first campsite, the rain let up long enough for Eila and Justin to serenade the group

Eila, Emily and Tally Gustina keeping dry under the river wing

Randy Roch and Greg Gustina take dish washing seriously

Checking on the boats before bedtime

2 birthdays on this trip!

Justin and I unabashedly sing happy birthday to ourselves

Isla stares at the BIG toad

I can’t imagine a raft trip without music. Thank you Justin!

Packing back up the next day

Justin and Leilani heading into Aragon rapid

Floating past Tiger Wall

Isla and I about to dig into to Sunday morning breakfast of french toast with whipped cream and fruit!

Sunday morning hike up the Huck Bay wash

RG checks out the pour off at the dead end of the box canyon

At the Chavez take out, Isla gets some rain-free time on a sand bar

Meeting a water snake while the trailers are loaded

Our group, heading home

Bye bye Chama River! See you next year.

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Being the animal boss of the farm is a hard job. It’s not only the physical aspect of it, and the logistics, and the nights and days spent worrying… but the inevitable attrition of the animals. I am not talking about “culling” the mean roosters for the freezer. I mean death by unknown causes or predators. Last year, in 3 separate attacks, we lost 2 mama hens and 4 out of 6 chicks, as well as a laying hen, to unknown predators. This year we’ve lost Gertie, the flock Matriarch, and Jackie, one of our sweet Americanas who I nursed back to health as a chick with dropperfuls of milk. I never knew the exact cause of either death but Isla and I respectfully buried their bodies in the frosty adobe soil. But the worst of all was just last week. We lost another mama hen with 14 chicks!!! Only one chick remained, hidden under the feeder tray overhanging a brick in the broody house. I discovered the piles of feathers blowing in the dawn breeze when I went out to milk. My heart sank. I KNEW what I would find. I went numb, my heart rate and breathing lowered – a sort of shock I think. I did not even go to the broody house. I went first to open the main coop, then checked on Isabelle, our setting turkey hen. Then, slowly, with tremendous dread, I opened the broody house. Feathers. An overturned water bottle. I could feel the fear and bedlam oozing out of the door. My heart clenched tight. My numbness deepened.

I switched on the autopilot. Then I milked Hazelnut, fed and watered chickens, goats and turkeys, and I began a detailed search of the surroundings, just in case a chick had escaped. And then I heard it…. the little tiny peep of a 5 day old chick. I looked under, between, around, and finally back inside. And there it was. The one remaining Marans chick out of the family of 14 plus mama. I scooped it up and tucked it into the neck of my fleece jacket. It was a chilly morning in late spring and the little peep shivered and shook against my chest. I grabbed the pail and walked slowly to the house.

Randy was at the computer sipping a mug of steaming coffee. He knew immediately something was wrong. “They’re gone. They are all gone. Except for this one…” His mouth dropped open and his face turned pale. I held the little peep in my hands, then took off my cashmere hat and tucked her deep in the warmth of it’s darkness. The peeping stopped. Randy took me in his strong arms and my tears began. My body shook silently against his for a long time. I thought of the terror all those chicks, and the mama, had faced before their death. I wondered what had done it. And I blamed myself fiercely. The mama was a borrowed broody Americana from a friend. We named her Inky as she was our Incubator. And she was the coolest, sweetest chicken I had ever had the honor to have known. She would fly up to my shoulder, and even onto the top of my sun hat once. When I held her she relaxed into my embrace and lay her head on my arm. She was genuinely the coolest bird ever. After falling in love, I officially traded her by buying my friend 3 little peeps to add to her new batch.

And now she was gone.

While Randy held my hat with the traumatized chick, I scoured the dust around the pen in the rising sun. There. And there. Definitely not our Pyrenees. Not a skunk. Not a weasel. Too round for a coyote. It looks like… a large… cat. Do we have bobcats in this urban neighborhood? I doubted it. I pulled Randy out for a look, and took pictures, and then thumbed through our tracking books. There it was – Gray fox. “Looks like the tracks of a large cat but with obvious claw marks.” Yep. Mr Fox. I had never seen a fox here. Plenty of coyotes, but never a fox. 5 days later our suspicion was confirmed as I had the “pleasure” of chasing Mr. Fox off in my pajamas. He had come back to the barnyard cafeteria for seconds. And he was small and beautiful and very fast.

This summer has been a complicated chicken summer. My business plan is to double my flock, adding in laying hens of dark chocolate brown eggs (Marans and Penedenscas), a few more blue-green layers (Americanas mainly) and some white layers (Andalusians). I already have plenty of tan and light brown, and with two of my three hen deaths this spring being Americanas, the blue eggs are getting thin. I figured with the addition of 1 turkey egg per dozen (off white with milk coffee spots), a colorful spread like that would make my cartons really stand out in people’s mind. Plus, being free range, foraging and organic birds, my yolks are orange, dense and delicious. The sale of eggs don’t exactly cover costs, but it sure helps. So I had done my research and found my hatchery for incubation eggs. When my friend announced a broody bird at her coop, I ordered 18 expensive very rare eggs and brought Inky over.

To give the mama something to do, I put her on 5 of my own flock’s eggs. The shipped eggs were suppose to arrive in 2-3 days. It took 5 days instead which made the timing tricky between my eggs and the shipped ones. They were technically 5 days off their hatching dates. At 21 days, sure as clockwork, the first little peep cracked a wee window through it’s shell and into the big new world. And for the first time ever, I was there to see it! It struggled mightily to push through, and being the type A person I am, I helped it by splitting the egg just a tiny bit for it to wriggle out. Within 20 minutes it was a fluffy black ball with a blonde head spot and utterly adorable. 2 more hatched in the next 24 hrs from my eggs, but I could see Inky was loosing patience with the remaining eggs. $130 worth of eggs. She kept pushing out the dark brown ones and pulling in the tan and blue ones. I guess they were just too foreign for her. I called feed stores near by and found one with Rhode Island Reds and Americanas, both 2 days old. So I zipped over and returned with 2 of each. Inky barely blinked as I lifted her multicolored wing and slipped the chicks under, one by one. And she was quite content with 7.

Inky with her first wee peep hatched from our egg.

But I wasn’t. 5 days after the first little fluffernugget emerged was the next hatch date, and nothing happened. I did in fact find a fully developed chick in it’s crushed shell, quite dead and covered with wood shavings from the bedding. I think Inky may have been too distracted to realize what was going on under her with 7 wigglers already there beneath and quite active. Isla and I carefully cracked open the remaining eggs to find only one other partially formed chick, and a bunch of reeking, rotten ones. From the 18 shipped eggs, only 2 had been fertile and neither had lived.

I was angry, and determined to meet my goal in as much as I could. I drove an hour to another feed store who actually had Marans, and returned with 5 Marans, 2 California whites, 2 Speckled Sussex, and 1 Black Astralorp. As I unloaded the chicks one by one into Inky’s box, I discovered one of the Marans was very small and had deformed feet. She wobbled uncertainly, her eyes half mast. I did not expect her to survive, and she didn’t. But what I didn’t expect was to find both Speckled Sussexes stiff in the wood shavings with their heads eaten off. There are definitely aspects of chickens that I prefer to ignore and cannibalism is one of them. Why the Speckled Sussexes? I will never know. And now Inky was down to 14 chicks. It was manageable.

It was the day after that when all the chicks made it out of the box with mama. I admit I helped the smallest, even though I swore I wouldn’t. But it was hard for Inky to have 9 outside scratching and pecking under the sage brush with her, while 5 cheeped pitifully from inside. Isla and I both got sunburned sitting mesmerized in the dirt as 14 little chicks cruised around us, over us, and through us, exploring their new world. It was an idyllic, delightful hour.

And the very next day – they were gone.

With red rimmed eyes, I contacted my friend, knowing she had the peeps I had just dropped off with her a few days prior, and drove over with the sole survivor still tucked into my hat. It was 6:45AM. I was still crying. And I cried more in Heather’s pajama-ed embrace. I felt physically ill. Nauseous. Why hadn’t I finished wrapping the stock panels in stucco netting? Well, I know why. Because being a farm manager and mom of a 3 yr old, I have a list of to do projects that would keep 3 people busy full time. But that didn’t keep the proverbial 2×4 from continuing to bash down on my head. Not only was there the loss of life, the loss of an awesome hen, the loss of those fluffy little nuggets, the loss of the $130 worth of eggs, and the loss of 21 days plus of waiting, but there was also the loss of my business plan.

I took out my anger on the egg company and they offered to reship the same order to me for just the cost of shipping. Some consolation at least, but my Inky-Incubator was gone. I had no time to hand raise chicks. I researched Marans chicks for sale on the web and found only one small mom and pop farm who had all the breeds I wanted. They would have to hatch to order. And it was incredibly impossible to catch the woman on the phone as she worked constantly and the chickens were just her side hobby. But finally we connected and agreed on the order, which due to the probability of hatchings, is vague. But she placed the desired eggs in the incubator for me last monday with a verbal commitment. It is going to be expensive. AND she wants me to agree to overnight shipping so she worries less about her babies. The next day, Tues, Heather told me she was pretty sure another of her birds had gone broody – a Buff Orpington. Did I want to borrow her and try again? Sigh. Weds it was confirmed – she was in the zone. And Weds evening I brought home The Golden Girl and plopped her in the broody box on top of 12 of our eggs. The timing for the shipment of day old chicks from Wisconsin would be only a day off. Hopefully Goldie would go for the adoption idea as easily as Inky did. And the ages of the chicks would be closer.

So this morning I stumble out the door at 5:30AM with milking pail in hand, aware of an unusual ruckus coming from the coop. But I knew the chickens were closed up tight and safe so I didn’t worry. I tossed a flake of hay over the fence to the goats, wiping the alfalfa dust from my bleary eyes. I scooped out the grain rations into the red enamel bowl and balanced it on top of the gate post. I took the pail through the gate and hung it on the branch stub on the post in the pole barn. I pushed through the 2nd gate to the coop pen and opened the coop door. Birds piled out blinking in the rosy light. I tossed scratch on the ground, filled the layer mash tube, petted Little Willie, and hefted the water tube noting it needed filling. I shuffled sleepily back out of the chicken pen, inadvertently releasing one of my wildest Barred Rocks, Checkers, into the goat pen. Sigh. 10 minutes later I had her back on her side of the fence and I went to open Isabelle’s door. Isabelle is our Royal Palm turkey hen who has been sitting on 18 eggs for longer than I anticipated. Yesterday one fuzzy yellow poult finally appeared. I am still waiting for more. I petted Thomas, her mate, and went to check on G.G..

WTF? She was gone! The box was empty! She was NOWHERE. I took a few deep breaths to made my brain work again.

We had turned the pen into Fort Knox over the weekend since the tragedy had occurred. It would have been close to impossible for a predator to get her now. The pen currently consists of 52″ stock panels, wrapped in 36″ of 17 gauge stucco netting (NEVER use 20 gauge poultry netting – it is a joke), and 18″ of horse fencing both buried in the ground and attached to the top of the stock panels. PLUS the turkey/chicken broody nursery is enclosed with dog kennel panels within the goat pen – it’s own inner sanctum. I looked in the sage brush within the kennel and even looked in the depths of Isabelle’s house, receiving a warning hiss in my face. Where was the freakin’ chicken?? The only thing I could imagine is that she had managed to fly over the 5′ fence into the adjoining free range chicken pen. Which would mean she would be hiding under the massive clump of sage brush where all the chickens hang during the day. Ahhh.. I remembered that ruckus earlier and the mystery unfolded in my head. So she managed to fly over into the free range pen, then followed the flock back into the coop pen, and then into the coop to roost. AND she managed to escape the night time head count before the door was bolted shut on the coop. This morning, as the chickens jumped down off their perches in anticipation of release, the pecking order was being re-established due to the new member. Hence the noise. Sneaky little mama. Smart little mama. But would she go back into the broody zone?

I milked Hazelnut and finished the feeding and watering chores. I strained the milk and plopped the jars into their ice bath. Then I took a deep breath, donned my sun hat, and headed out to the free range pen. I found G.G. quickly. She was one of the few who did not come out of the brush when I set down a bowl of cheese whey for the flock. I squatted and talked sweetly to her through the scratchy dead sage branches. I did a little courtship dance around the clump of brush, hoping to lure her out. I kneeled down and asked politely. And finally I started pushing myself sun hat first into the brush on hands and knees. Of course G.G. just walked out the opposite side leaving me ensnared and sweating. After a few of these episodes into various sage brush thickets, I herded her into the coop pen. Now I had to climb over the fence as I could not fit through the chicken hole. Interesting. Once in the smaller pen, I had a slightly better chance. After 5 or so minutes I was able to get her cornered, and secured, and then back in the broody house with the doorway blocked off with an extra queen excluder from my hive. She showed no interest in the clutch of eggs. I left her to walk our Pyrenees and returned to the house and a fussy, just woken up 3 yr old.

Later in the day, Goldie was sitting beside the eggs but not on them. Come on girl – give it a little broody try, eh? At last glance she was obliging. I shoved 2 stray eggs under her and let her be. In 21 days I will tell the rest of the tale: Did she stay broody? How many of my eggs hatched? What chick breeds did I end up getting in the mail? How many will be roosters? Will G.G. adopt them? How many laying hens will I end up with at the end of this ridiculous goose chase? Will I be able to get the new coop addition onto the pole barn before winter? How many turkey poults will hatch? How many more poultry deaths will there be this year?

And will my first dark brown egg, some time next winter, taste like….

chocolate?

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