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Painting the new hive in preparation

Painting the new hive in preparation

Isla helping me assemble the frames with her own little hammer.

Isla helping me assemble the frames with her own little hammer.

Sure, I’ve installed packages of bees before. Not a lot, but at least 3. You wait by the phone on the predicted day of arrival for that exciting call from the USPS annex. You jump in your vehicle and speed over, ring the back door bell, and the postal person leads you in from the loading dock, as he or she is not usually comfortable bringing a cage of 10,000 bees TO you. Then you set them in your car and whisper loving endearments to this seething mass of the insect world as you drive them slowly home, to their waiting hive. And then you install them, but that is another story.

But USPS no longer ships bees.

And I had no idea what was in store for me when I headed south to meet the bee truck from Texas.

After the relaxing 1-1/2 hr drive to Santa Fe (alone, by God!) through the Rio Grande Gorge and it’s serpentine tumble through class 3 rapids, and my requisite stop at Trader Joe’s in said town, I went off in search of the pick up spot. I passed it 3 times before I finally figured out which drive it was. House numbers do no good in emails when they do not exist in reality. I pulled in and waved to a man who was separating bee cages with a pry bar. Bees were swirling in a cloud around his unveiled head. I was obviously in the right place. He asked my name and carried over 2 of the 4 cages I was transporting.

But something was very wrong.

There were bees flying everywhere and several hundred clinging to the outside of the cages! WTF? How was I going to get these cages into the back seat of my truck? And then home?

I inquired as to why the OUTSIDES of the cages where coated in several layers of bees. The man said that was the nature of a bee truck delivery – the bees were shaken into the bee package cages on top of the queen cages and a bunch more attached themselves to the outside, waiting for their new home, just like the trapped ones inside. I mumbled under my breath that USPS never delivered my cages covered in bees …. on the OUTSIDE. Of course I knew that hiveless bees have no instinct to sting as there is nothing to protect. But it was more than a little unnerving to think of driving 65 mph down the highway for the next 1-1/2 hrs with bees swirling at will about my head inside the truck!

He brought the next pair of cages over, slightly less bee coated, and I stood back waiting for the upset creatures to land once more. I had no gloves, so took a deep breath, grabbed the protruding slats, and hefted the first pair slowly and carefully into the back seat. Because it was obvious HE didn’t want to do it for me! Same procedure with the second pair of cages. Now the cloud of verklempt insects was IN the truck. I leaned in the driver’s door slowly, reached for the keys, turned on the ignition, and opened all the windows. Then I very carefully slid open the back slider window.

I stood back for about 5 minutes and watched the cloud alight, one by one, back on their cage of origin. When there were only a few dozen airborn cruisers, I slipped slowly into the drivers seat, being careful to check that I was not about to sit on a stray, closed the door, and rolled out of the drive with my knuckles already clenched white on the steering wheel.

In this pics the flying bees have settled down and are clinging quietly to the outside of the 2 farthest away cages.

In this pic the flying bees have settled down and are clinging quietly to the outside of the 2 farthest away cages.

For the nerve-wracking drive back to Taos, I made all moves in slow motion. I adjusted and readjusted the airflow from the windows to create a suction out the back slider. Fortunately, many of my unwanted passengers exited the truck in this exciting, high speed fashion. I blasted the airconditioner to chill them down a bit, hoping to encourage them to clump together for warmth. As it was barely in the 40’s outside, my fingers were beginning to grow numb. I finally broke down and blasted the heat on my sockless feet, leaving the windows opened as they were. As I waited for feeling to return to my frozen finger tips, I started thinking rather hysterical thoughts, quite obviously borne from my intense nervousness. “I bet Randy never thought he could fit 40,000 ladies into his truck at once. HA HA HA HA!!” (And yes, that estimation was about right, give or take a hundred.) I shivered to my core and switched hands – one for the wheel, the other jammed between my thighs. The bees and I settled to our travel task over time, but stopping at lights was always the hairiest. The lack of motion triggered them to fly again and without the air flow through the windows, they tended to fly into the front of the cab to check me out. I was grateful to have worn a hoody, and kept the hood pulled forward as best I could. This, at least, eased my fear of curious bees crawling down the neck of my shirt.

I wound my way up out of the Gorge to look north across the town of Taos and the intermittent snow squalls marching eastward across the mesa. What I could see of the mountains were blanketed white with their fresh burdens, so characteristic of our mountain springtime.  Heather met me at the gate to her yard with camera in hand, and I escaped my buzzing jail in record time. In the reflection of her car window, I spotted one of the wee lassies crawling on the back of my shirt. Heather brushed her off, we took some pictures through the open door, and I carefully carried her two cages into the wood shop. Then it was back to the bumpy dirt road, bound for our own farm, about a mile away.

Once parked safely in our driveway, I was greeting by my duly impressed husband (and flexed my muscles for him a bit), who had completed the readying of the apiary in preparation for my arrival. The 2 hives were leveled with a slight tilt forward for moisture drainage, the old frames (full of honey still from the hive we lost last winter) were interspersed with the newly built frames (split between the old and the new hives), the sugar water was in the 2 boardman feeders, the entrance reducers were in place. All looked good. I carried the pair of cages from the truck to the apiary (without protection, just to impress the cheering crowd… in my mind), and we retired to the house to don gear as the next wave of squalls moved across our farm.

Prying the cages apart.

Prying the cages apart.

A blast of wind and a flurry of snow whipped the house. Randy and I looked at each other in disbelief. Didn’t we install our first hive in a snow storm 3 years ago, we asked with our arched brows? I felt badly for the poor bees out in the cold wind and fumbled hurriedly with my suit and veil. Randy was wearing his Christmas bee suit for the first time and was extremely excited. As he was always on kid duty, he had NEVER seen the inside of our hive in the 3 yrs we had kept it!  We also crowned Marian (our housemate) and Isla (our 3 year old) with veils of their own. Once the squall passed (which only took a few minutes, in high desert fashion), we raced back out to the apiary and began the process.

Removing sugar water cans and queen cages.

Removing sugar water cans and queen cages.

Sugar water cans were removed from the cages, queen cages removed next and attached on a frame in each hive, and bees tumbled in a clumping ball over the top of their queens. The girls immediately crawled down inside their new homes and got down to the business of housecleaning, comb drawing, and tending their royal mistress.

Shaking the package of bees over the queen cage.

Shaking the package of bees over the queen cage.

The worker bees moving down into the frames to get to work.

The worker bees moving down into the frames to get to work.

Um, that would be approximately 10,000 bees.

Um, that would be approximately 10,000 bees.

Replacing the inner cover.

Replacing the inner cover.

We replaced inner and outer covers, adjusted the entrance reducers, and leaned the bee cages against the landing boards. There were still many hundreds of bees in the cages and it was important to give them an easy path to their new digs. Marian and Isla watched from nearby, the former madly taking pictures. Then Randy and I stepped back, took a deep breath, and exhaled with deep satisfaction. While we took turns brushing stray bees from each other’s clothes, the next wave of weather came in, peppering us with small, bouncing hail balls. The grand finale was a resounding clap of thunder! We shook our heads and giggled into the frigid wind. This was April 20th??

The 4 of us rushed inside the warm house, a hudle of 4 beaming smiles. It was done! Our babies were safe. Our apiary was doubled in size! We had gotten the new hive ready in time. We did it!! And no one had gotten stung.

Isla and Marian, our cheerleaders!

Isla and Marian, our cheerleaders!

After stripping off gear and passing around some well deserved high fives, I scurried back out into the driveway to close up the truck and bring in the boxes from Trader Joe’s. I checked the truck interior first for any lost bees, then reached for the box of 2 Buck Chuck.

“OW!” (And if you really think that was the word that came out of my mouth, you can think again. Please note I used to sail on tall ships.) I shook the squashed bee off my palm and scraped out the stinger she had left behind. Then I belted out some more colorful sailor jargon to ease the pain. Had I truly survived a harrowing drive, installed 2 new hives, and then got stung carrying in groceries? I entered the house with a wry smile on my face, which got much bigger when Randy passed me a shot glass of tequila and a wedge of lime! “Oh yeh”, I sighed with a clink of glass – he was speaking my other language (which fits in quite well with sailor talk). “Slante!”

Well at least we all got a good laugh at the absolute irony of it! And the thought of the fall honey harvest was well worth my few new gray hairs. With the existing crop sprouting from my rumpled head, I truly doubted anyone would notice.

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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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It’s Saturday. A not too abnormal Saturday. The 3 of us began to tangle about in the untucked sheets around 6:10 AM. Isla said suddenly and loudly, “Mama, I want to get up!”  Groan. “Soon honey. I am not quite ready.” I mumbled. “Popee, I want to get up!” The sound of “Murph!” issued from the dusky blob on the far side of the bed. The room began to slowly lighten and I heard Little Willie protesting his dawn captivity with a trumpeting crow. “OK Isla, I’m ready.” I said.

We dropped our bare feet onto the floor and pattered through our bathroom routines, Papa on our heels. The tea kettle on, I filled Bucky’s beer bottle of goat milk and settled it into a pot of water on the remaining working stove unit. Randy’s espresso pot waited in line. Tea kettle whistled and the timer went off for the milk. A few minutes later, the espresso hissed to life. I filled the milk crate with the milking pail, a tub of rolled barley and equine pellets (goat kibble), Bucky’s nippled bottle, a small jar of olive oil (teat lube), and a tub of warm water with grapefruit seed extract and rag (teat wash). I was looking forward to when we could move these goat feed bins out of the living room. My pot of green tea slowly steeped. Randy checked email. Isla nibbled on some honey and butter toast. With a contented sigh, I sipped carefully and thankfully from my steamy mug – currently my favorite mug – from an apple orchard in Hancock, NH that I used to visit every fall. My vision began to clear as the dark green, bitter brew infused into my veins. Staring thoughtfully at the spreading green apple tree across the grey ceramic backdrop, I admitted – it’s going to be a busy day…

And so it unfolded….

Randy stepped into the brightening dawn first to open the chicken coop, a fuzzy Isla on his hip, her bed-headed, golden mohawk waving and glowing in the shimmering morning air.

The same 2 family members started some breakfast while I bottle fed Bucky, milked Hazelnut (only 5 cups of milk as Fiona and Bucky were coursing off the milking stand pissing both mamas off to the extreme). As I grumbled and elbowed off another flying kid, I mentally designed the detention pen I would build the next day. Alfalfa flakes and grain were dumped into respected tubs and bowls and 5 gal buckets of water hauled to another tub from a spigot way too far away. Gave the chickens a quick check, topped off their tube of layer mash, checked their water tube (low). Molly leaped repeated beside me, wondering why I didn’t have her lead in my free 7th hand.

We ate a sustaining farm breaky of sausage, fried eggs, toast and sauerkraut. I always prefer a cooked breakfast to cereal and seem to need the protein. And as Randy and Isla headed to the hardware store for lumber and a new faucet, I headed back to the salt mines, I mean apartment, to continue where I had left off cleaning from the 1-1/2hrs of the day before. I cursed. A lot. At least I only needed to walk 4 steps from door to door.

3 hrs later I was done, in more ways than one, and exhausted, and pissed off by the state the tenants had left it in. I felt violated and taken advantage of as we had given them such a killer deal. Lesson number one – nice gals don’t always finish first. I dragged into our half of the house in time to pull bee suit and tools out of the closet. Then Robert, our bagpipping, retired-doctor friend, who is also a beekeeper, arrived in his bright red Madza convertible with bee suit in hand (but no bagpipes I was sad to see). I was thankful for his presence this day. It had been years since I had had a bee mentor and I was delighted to have him agree to be such for me. Of course it had been St. Paddy’s Day, at the local brew pub, and we were drinking…. he was playing bagpipes in full Scottish attire. I reminded him of who I was –  “MacLaren Scott, remember? You played at my wedding. There is my husband Randy over there. Perhaps you’d remember him better if you imagined him on stage, in his skivvies, being “kilted” by my father and 2 brothers, in front of 300 guests at our reception?” But Robert remembered long before I got my story out. I had hoped he hadn’t thought better about our beer induced agreement by today.

But here he was, right on time. We donned suits and fired up my smoker on the back porch. I glanced longingly through the french doors at the hot quesadillas Randy had just set on the table, settled my bee veil and hat on my head, and the 2 of us walked to the hive with my stomach gurgling loudly. We smoked liberally, removed the entrance reducer, and cracked the lid. More smoke. We cracked the inner cover. More smoke. Slowly we removed several frames to find them chocked full of honey… and bees. By that time I was wishing I had brought a large serving spoon with my hive tools. The good news was the bees were fit as a fiddles and had plenty of food. I did not even need to feed them. The hive was full and the colony healthy. Bad news was I didn’t get to steal any honey… yet.

Robert and I chatted as we slowly meandered away from the hive, waiting for the bees to get bored of us and go home. We took a circuitous route as their interest was not waning. While commiserating over all the bear attacks fellow bee keepers have recently been victim to, we were finally able to take off veils and suits, and return for introductions to the kids and Hazelnut. It would seem the bees didn’t recognize us without the white coveralls on. And then a farewell in the driveway which overlapped a hello in the same location with our new apartment guests. As this Canadian couple were our first “official” guests in the apartment, reserved through our airbnb site, I had hoped to make an impression. And I am sure I did – with my half naked child clinging to me like a baby monkey, bee helmut hair sticking out in all directions, stinking of smoke, stomach growling as loud as an attacking bear, and farm clothes covered in milk and little muddy hoof prints. But it wasn’t exactly the impression I was aiming for.

Flustered, I settled the Canadians into the apartment, and returned to our kitchen famished and shaky. I devoured the now cold quesadillas, grateful my hubby had gone all domestic on me this day. Daddy and daughter had laid down for books and quiet time so I crept in stealthily to slip in beside them. “Mama, I don’t want you in bed with us. I just want Papa.” Ouch. “Well dear, it’s my bed as well and I need to rest a bit too, so I AM going to lie down with you.” I slithered between the sheets and drifted to the sounds of Randy reading. Then delightful silence. Ahhhh. 25 minutes later I was done and slipped back out to resume the day.

While Isla napped and Randy surfed, I grabbed the keys and headed out for errands. After restocking the apartment at the natural foods store, I headed to the kitchen store to replace items that had been… trashed. Sigh. Our first unofficial guests had been a definite trial by fire.

Then home again for Bucky’s 4:30ish feeding and evening farm chores. More water, more alfalfa, more grain and kibble, more bottle feeding, and affection to all 3 goats. Isla amused herself in the mud puddle I’d created with the old water I’d poured out of their tub. Randy worked on cutting a hole through the outer fence so we could bring in the new hay bales that had been delivered the day before. We needed to store them properly on pallets beside the goat pen. I had finally resorted to cashing in almost all of my measly IRA in order to stock pile the hay now, before the shortage left my goats with no food. The report from John, who was bucking our bales off the back of his flat bed, was: only one more batch of bales coming, and those would cost $20-$25 a bale! From the goat pen I saw that one of our new guests had found Randy outside and they were chatting by the green stack. I hoped I looked impressive in my Australian fur felt hat lugging a 5 gallon bucket of water through the gate. I was impressed I was still standing at all!

Then back to the chickens with the scrap pan, I scattered scratch on the ground, refilled layer mash, hefted the water tube (noting it would need filling first thing in the morning), and collected eggs. I stooped low to scoop up Little Willie for a few minutes of rooster therapy, convinced this was the key to keeping him gentle. Whenever I thought he was getting too rough with the girls, I would carry him over to the outdoor freezer, open the door and point to what remained of his mean brothers. “Don’t forget Willie. I’m watching you Mister.” But for this therapy session, I simply stroked his shimmering sunset feathers and iridescent green tail. He was a very handsome boy. I hoped he would behave for many years… long enough for generations of little Willies, or preferably Willaminas, to cruise through the sage brush behind their mamas. Time for a quick cuddle with Bobo, my favorite Black Australorp. Then I strolled over to Randy who was chatting now with both guests, swinging the egg basket with confidence. I had a second chance at making a good impression and didn’t want to blow it. Smiling broadly, I offered Connie her pick of 4 fresh eggs, so very glad I had thought to knock the poop off the shells first. She beamed back at me, choosing a lovely blue egg and 3 shades of brown.  The 4 of us chatted a bit, then I led the group into the goat pen for the requisite introductions. Isla was now total mud from toe to thigh and finger tip to elbow. Fortunately Connie and Ken found this amusing. And I am sure I made quite a lasting impression when I stood my child on a stump of the goat play ground and stripped off her pants and boots, leaving them behind in a muddy heap. I departed with a loving smile towards my husband, “Honey, could you grab those for me please?” and swung my monkey back on my hip, headed for the house.

It was too bad I took off her rain pants and muck boots as she was right back outside on her balance bike, in her clean PJs, within 10 minutes. So I gave up the fight, mixed up 2 strong margaritas with fresh squeezed lime and hobbled back out to find Randy. He was by the garden fence talking with Ken, so I offered them each a glass. They were definitely big enough to share with spouses. Once Ken headed back to the apartment, Randy and I had a rare moment, sitting side by side on the porch love seat, sharing the last of the one margie, watching our child taking dust baths under a sage brush with her chickens. Glorious! Much too short. Then I headed for the bath, reminding myself there were always more PJs.

Randy continued to work on moving hay bales while Isla filled her wheelbarrow with dirt and gave it to him as a present. When my dusty child trotted into the bathroom, I was nicely soaked, so I stepped out and let her climb into the same bath water. It’s a good practice in the high desert. I laid naked across our king bed, the cool sheets absorbing my sweat, listening to the trickle of Randy’s shower and Isla’s constant chatter to her tub friends. I was too tired to cook dinner. Thank god for rice noodles and jars of pasta sauce. Randy joined me on the bed, naked as well. It had been a hot day for March – probably had hit 70. The room was warm. The waterfall in the koi pond tickled my ears through the open window. A cooling breeze moved the wind chimes. Chickens bucked and Bucky bleated. Molly barked once from the west. “I’m ready to get out Mama!”

After a simple pasta meal, Randy began the teethbrushing and getting in bed march of death. I started to heat Bucky another bottle of milk and sat down to write. The timer beeped, I donned my head lamp, and stepped out into the night. Bucky ran out of the barn to greet me and inhaled the milk in seconds. Once again, I had that uncomfortable feeling that he was starving. I ducked inside the barn to give Hazelnut and Fiona goodnight pats where they were nestled in the straw. Then with Molly’s escort, I went to put the chickens to bed. Closed one gate, closed the coop door, and did a head count through the window. Only 14. Hmmm…. Lifted the nesting box flap and looked through sideways. As I thought – there was Dot, under the roosting bars on the floor. 15 all accounted for. I felt great gratitude to Randy for replacing the constantly falling upper roosting bar the day before. The chickens were so much happier with 2. Last gate closed. I took a deep breath of the night air.

Stopping in the sage as I headed to the house, I switched off my headlamp and stood still. The night sky was stunning. And this was the sky I knew well from my winter sailing days in the tropics. Orion the Hunter was high above me in his end-of-winter position. Taurus, the bull was close by… Cassiopeia… the Pleiades or 7 Sisters (known to me as The Shopping Cart)… the Big Dipper…. Jupiter and Venus were hanging one over the other in the western sky. And just on the western horizon was the setting crescent moon beneath the planets, the entire orb visible as a faint illuminated tracing. Neighborhood sounds filled my ears: dogs barking here and there, cars on the main road, a distant siren. I don’t think this would be considered the country… quite… but currently, it was our paradise. Then as I passed the koi pond I saw a flicker of motion from the edge of my lamp. Ahhh, yet another koi had survived the winter – the little orange and white one. Two so far. It put a smile on my face.

I fed Molly on the back porch and wrote some more. Still no internet service. Still no cell phone service. I felt isolated from the world and mildly content about it. I kept struggling with the urge to check the NASA site for solar flare activity – but of course, I couldn’t. As Molly had been barking for a minute or so, I stepped onto the back porch once more to quiet her. A flash of light stole my glance and I looked up in time to catch the burning blaze of a shooting star streak across the western sky. It felt like something strange and magical was afoot – the alignment of planets and new moon, the shooting star, the cell and web outage. A coyote howled in the distance sending a shiver up my spine. But then again, magic was always afoot. I only had to remember to look up from my chores to see it. A good reminder as I said goodnight to the darkness and headed gratefully off to bed…. without starting the new batch of goat chevre.

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Her long, ash-gray ears felt like velvet to the pads of my fingers. I could not stop stroking them, or tracing a line along the jet black ridge of her spine, surrounded on both sides by a sea of dark chocolate. She was the most beautiful animal I had ever seen, so small, so vulnerable, so perfect…. and she had been so close to death just a few hours before.

Here Fiona is 3 or 4 hrs old. Amazing that such a tiny creature can elicit such fierce, unconditional love from so many.

Hazelnut gave birth earlier than expected, in the wee hours of dawn amidst a driving blizzard. While she labored through the storm, both inside and out, I had one of my worst nights of insomnia on record. Up for 5 straight hours, I thought incessantly and obsessively about baby goats and goats being born. I can only imagine I was in some sort of spiritual link with my future goat. When Chris, Hazelnut’s human papa, bundled again the snow and tromped off to the barn to check on the three expectant caprine mothers, it was already too late for the little buckling. Hazelnut had been pushed away from the heat lamp by the herd matriarch, and the buckling had froze while his sister was being born. This tragic news gave me more insight into my “labor bond” with Hazelnut. I too, had lost my son at birth. Fiona, as I named her, was on Death’s door. But Death did not have the firm grip on her that took her brother. The Pieper family acted fast, stoking the wood stove and dragging out the radiant heat lamp. Someone milked Hazelnut and the warm colostrum was dribbled down Fiona’s throat with a dropper, as she was still too weak to swallow. When Isla and I arrived, and I held the tiny doeling in my lap, she was still shivering from her frigid entry into our harsh world. But 3 hrs later, when we said a reluctant farewell, she was already struggling to stand…

and I was hopelessly in love.

The morning of Fiona's birth

Elana Pieper nursing Fiona back to life

Isla and I get our chance... and that was that. We were hooked.

Gwendolyn Pieper lets Hazelnut have some time with her down-wrapped baby.

We returned to the Pieper’s farm the following day. After a nice visit with the family, and Hazelnut, who would soon be OUR herd matriarch, we packed up a mason jar of colostrum, and a clean beer bottle with rubber nipple. And with Fiona in my lap, and Isla in her car seat, I drove slowly home. The wee lassies slept soundly for the 30 minute drive. We made our doeling a comfy bed in the corner of the kitchen and nursed her every couple of hours. We held her as much as we possibly could – attachment parenting will always be my choice with a human baby, and when needed, with an animal one too. That night I snuggled our furry newborn daughter in bed beside me, getting up 3 times in the night to bottle feed and let her pee. Not much sleep was had for me, but I didn’t really care. All my newborn/second child mothering urges were being exquisitely fulfilled with this big act of love between me and a 5 lb. lump of fur, warmth and trust. I was in groggy heaven.

Fiona checking out the goat on our rug while sporting an old pair of Isla's pull ups.

Isla introduces each of her many friends to her new caprine sibling.

"And you and Hazelnut will come live with us as soon the your house is finished! We'll be sisters!"

After returning Fiona to Hazelnut and the Piepers, Isla and I each gave a heavy sigh and trudged back to the car. It was wonderful to see mama and baby bonding the way Nature intended and that sight gave me joy… but also a strange pang of jealousy. I have so badly wanted a second child, and Fiona is already satiating so much of that primal, and sometimes painful desire. And Isla is already accepting her as the little sibling she has been asking for, human or not. But the hardest thing was the unexpected separation over the following days as I immediately came down with a nasty cold and could not come visit the goats again for 4 long days. After the intimate bond created from sleeping with Fiona, this was pure torture for me. It gave me some insight into how Hazelnut must feel being separated from her baby! BOTH her babies!

But today Fiona is a week old and sleeping safely in the barn with her animal mama. She is running, jumping and playing – still wobbly but so very much more sure hoofed! Her recovery has been a miracle in my eyes. And this morning’s sunrise brought her 2 new cousins born into the herd from her half sister, Wren. The role call is not yet over either. Mamacita is expecting certainly triplets, and possibly quadruplets! We hope to bring home one of the bucklings as well.

Last night we helped celebrate Chris Pieper’s 45th birthday and I ate an excellent home cooked meal with little Fiona in my arms. I shared her with the other guests too… reluctantly. Many wanted to hold the little fuzzy nugget and kiss her knobbly head, on the snow white patch, just between her little horn buds. With all the preparation for the coming weekend work party to finish the goat shed and fence, I do not know when my next visit to the girls will be and that leaves me with a certain anxiousness in my gut. But I also need to remember my human daughter. She loves the goats too, but doesn’t fancy the competition for Mama’s love and focus. Tonight she insisted on pulling out her old baby bottle and having me feed her. “I’m a little goat, Mama, and my name is Fiona. I can’t hold my bottle. YOU have to feed me. Make sure I stretch my neck out nice and long, OK?” This is more humorous than one might think as Isla would NEVER take a bottle in all her infancy! She was solely breast fed!

My token "breaking ground" photo taken just before the storm, and Fiona, arrived.

10 stock panels for the pen - 50" high by 16' long.

Returning home with cedar posts for both pole barn and pen.

The two Randy's trying to look tough next to their first sunk posts. Unfortunately the post hole auger failed to work.

I have wanted goats for decades and felt a strange, comfortable and curious bond with them. Randy and I have always been interested in gardening, but as our food supply has become less and less safe and predictable, we have turned more toward a deep desire for some level of homesteading. Nowadays, it is the only true way to know what you are ingesting. When I was pregnant with Isla, we discussed what my “job” would be once she was born. We both heartily agreed that we did not want for me to take on a paying job, just to afford to pay someone else to raise our child! I had closed the doors on my sustainable house design business a year or so prior and had welcomed the ease of drafting land survey plats for my friend and his thriving survey business. It was such a stress relief to leave my work at the office (someone else’s office) and not stay awake at night working out a design challenge for a demanding client. But CAD work would not be compatible with raising a newborn in a Waldorf inspired home. So it was decided. I would be the stay-at-home mommy and manage a little farm… an urban homestead… basically the life I had dreamed of for many, many years. Not only would I nurture the mind of my long awaited daughter, but I would nurture the bodies of my partner, my child, and myself. It was the ultimate mothering job. Really? Me? I could do this?

We bought a house on a little piece of land at the outskirts of town and found a tenant for our existing home. We were tired of the isolation and barren lands of our mesa living and were ready for community. It wasn’t much – 1.7 acres. But it had a well which was HUGE for us, having live in a our owner-built, off-grid, strawbale house for years. There, we collected rainwater or hauled it from a spring. The closest aquifer was 1300′ straight down and no one in the neighborhood could even consider drilling! A well sounded like pure decadence to us leather-skinned mesa rats.

We moved into our new home in Oct of ’09, little Isla at 5 months old, strapped to my body as we unpacked boxes. We talked and planned through the winter, ordered seeds and researched bees and chickens. Randy took on the majority of the garden, and me the animals and insects. By the end of the first year we had a flock of 12 chickens (2 of which were laying), 1 bee hive, 8 fruit trees planted, and a good sized garden with fencing. But no goats. By the end of the 2nd year we were pulling in our second honey harvest, had expanded the garden, built raised beds and added drip irrigation. The orchard had a total of 18 trees – all on drip, and the chicken flock had been increased to 15 by natural means of broody birds (tallied after the loss of 3 laying hens and 4 peeps to a predator, and the 3 mean roosters we’d relegated to the freezer). But no goats.

But THIS year….. oh my! I am getting my goats I am! No more buying local, raw, goat and cow milk to keep kefir, yogurt and cheese in my family’s bellies. We’ll raise the buckling for meat, right along side Fiona. She’ll have a playmate during her kid months, and we will know our dinner was loved, cared for, raised organically in comfortable, healthy conditions, and was killed with reverence and respect. After shelving my dream for years, I am mere weeks away! Soon I’ll be milking Hazelnut, steps away from my back porch, and drinking her milk, warm and fresh, mild and creamy, as only a Nubian’s is.

And when I lead Hazelnut, Fiona, and her buckling cousin into their new pen and shed, I think I will finally be able to call myself a mother AND a true urban homesteader! Damn it is going to feel good!!!

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“The squishy bugs are dy-ing, the squashy bugs are dy-ing, squishing the squashy bugs, squashing the squi…”

I blinked, realizing with shock that the monotone mumblings reaching my ears were issuing from my own mouth. “Wow. Guess this is what parenthood does to you,” I said out loud. “Ah HA! Got you you skittering varmit!” And I added another stain of squash bug inners to the fingertips of my new leather gloves. With my favorite red handled scissors, I snipped two more dry, brittle squash leaves from their stalks and crushed them enthusiastically in my fist. “Hee hee. Take THAT!” Leaf dust and bug parts rained down on the hot adobe dirt by my shoe. The late August sun was cooking my inner ankle. I shifted position onto my knees and straightened my creaky back.

It was a rare occurrence to be alone in the garden. Randy’s parents were visiting for the week and Isla couldn’t get enough of her PapaJim and Gigi. I was taking full advantage of this situation, as well as the lessening of my start-of-school cold, by burying myself in our garden jungle. I wiped my nose on my glove and watched a honey bee explore the inner sanctum of a mango colored squash blossom. Watching bees always makes me smile. I assumed this hard working insect was one of my own, or so I like to say. A second bee hovered near the opening, back legs laden with pollen grains, awaiting it’s turn within. It was so burdened with it’s protein load that I bet it would return to the hive after this last stop. I looked instinctively through the 10ft high sunflowers, the corn stalks almost ready to pick, the drying pole bean vines, in the general direction of my bee hive, and felt a pang of guilt. “Geez. I am SUCH a negligent mom,” I thought shamefully. If there was such a thing as an Apis Protective Services I would surely be reported and my hive taken away!

I first got into keeping bees some 13 years ago when I discovered a good friend was interested in the same. He had a large apple orchard and a year round stream – I had the time. The first year we harvested a gallon each of liquid gold. The second year the bears did the harvesting for us, leaving our 2 hives in splinters. Although my interest never wavered, it wasn’t until 2 springs ago that I felt ready to take on the responsibility once more. We had bought the land and house specifically for creating an urban homestead, and bees are the no-brainer first addition. Thank god they can mostly take care of themselves as, once again, I find I have filled my plate too full. I am still in awe that they have not swarmed in search of a more attentive mother – yet.

I have a curious relationship with bees. I respect them immensely and marvel at the social organization of their hive. They are energetic, untiring laborers, and the best team players I have ever known. I feel something akin to love when I watch them zip in and out of their hive entrance – a motherly affection for sure. And they also scare the bejezzus out of me! One of my original bee mentors was a Mormon man who had spent his missionary time in Paraguay tending hives of killer bees. They used the old basket skeps that one might recognize from the Highway signs along the roadways of Utah. One day while tending a hive, he was stung on his chest. He said his over shirt had come unbuttoned and the bee had stung through his inner shirt. Within a nanosecond, the chemical signal was out and the hive swarmed him, all stinging viciously in the same area on his body. He ran like hell to a nearby pond and plunged under the scum, holding his breath for all he was worth. He counted 40 stings in all. He could have easily died from the shock of that much venom.

As I assembled and painted the first hive in my new apiary, I felt excited to be a beekeeper again.

When I picked up the screen cage of 3000 worker bees and a queen from the hands of the shaking Postal worker, I felt nervous. And when I emptied the rolling, buzzing, bee ball over the frames of the first hive box, I felt…. terror.

Unfortunately, my shot of courage, in the form of a bottle of Cuervo and a wedge of lime, did not help one iota. With trembling hands I attached the queen cage strap to the top of a frame, already dreading when I would remove it in a few days. By then The Mother Superior should have eaten through the candy plug and released herself into her mass of waiting devotees. And that hive would attend her loyally and royally for the rest of her several year life.

With a soft bristled bee brush I encouraged the wee ones to begin exploring their new home. It took little effort – they were already crawling between the frames and getting down to the serious business of drawing comb. They have a strong instinctual programming and waste no time. I pushed the Bordman feeder, an inverted jar full of sugar water set in a special tray, into the entrance. They would need food and water immediately after their 3 day journey, and it would speed up the comb production if they did not have to venture far. The inner cover was next, careful to avoid squishing anyone in the process, then the telescoping outer cover. I stepped back, took a deep breath, and heaved a sigh of relief. I was nursing a serious oxygen debt from holding my breath. Gathering my hive tools, I leaned the mostly empty shipping cage against the landing board, and walked tall back to the house. By the time I pushed open the courtyard gate, I had gained full composure and was feeling rather cool. “Yep Isla, that was your mom out there in the Outback, battling vicious, woman-eating insects. But it’s OK dear, I took care of EVERYTHING. The world is, once again, safe.” I had a great desire to grab my crotch and readjust… something. Instead I chuckled with forced confidence. I imagined Mary Elizabeth Gallagher, the awkward Catholic school girl of Saturday Night Live fame, shoving her hands into her arm pits and then sniffing deeply of her pungent fingers. I could relate. I was feeling a primal male energy rising up past my insignificant ovaries. The long crotch length of my one-piece bee suit helped me along with my developing swagger. I grabbed my hive tool and spun it briskly on my finger like a six-shooter, and shoved it smartly back into my pocket. It missed it’s mark and fell unceremoniously to the sod with a wump.

My next opportunity to feel cool was bringing home the bacon of my labors (or lack there of). The one box I had gotten around to adding was chocked full of honey and very heavy. I hauled it back from the apiary, my bee veil hiding an ear to ear grin. Randy and Isla waited with anticipation on the back porch. The honey super banged down on the porch table. I slowly lifted a frame from the box and waited for my due appreciation. “Look at that! Yeah? Yeah? That was ALL me. ALL honey! ALL for us!” Applause. I felt only mild discomfort from stealing credit from the bees. It takes balls to be a bee keeper!

We hauled the box into the kitchen and set about cutting comb from frame. It was a deliciously sticky job that we performed with relish! We cut up hunks of comb and dropped them into pint jars, then crushed the remaining in a colander with a potato masher. Some days later we filled the jars to the brim with golden liquid, the chunk of comb barely visible within. And after boiling down the wax scraps, I had enough beeswax to make a lovely Solstice candle with Isla. It felt extremely satisfying.

As spring approached once more, fired up with thoughts of MORE gold, I ordered the parts for a second bee hive…. while simultaneous expanding the garden and doubling our chicken flock. My brain must be the size of an insect’s. As you may have guessed, I have not even opened the shipping crates. It’s been all I could do to get a honey super on last years solo hive. I have been painting the succeeding honey boxes (3) for the past month and I am only talking about 2 coats of paint here – not the Mona Lisa. Of course, Isla’s participation doesn’t exactly help the process along.

I should have had at least 3 or 4 honey supers stacked above the brood chamber boxes, mostly full of honey by now. It is 3 days away from September and still there is only one – a sad waste of a potential crop. Perhaps with the Grands here for a few more days I can get the second coat on and assemble the 30 frames… or at least 10 more for one additional box. I am running out of time, as are the bees. We hoped to include small jars of honey in our annual Solstice gift bags, nestled against the homemade truffles and our Better Not Pout Oatmeal Stout. But the math is clear – I only get out what I put in. Thank god my several thousand children are forgiving ones. Thank god they haven’t swarmed for greener pastures. If they do, there will be much abuzz about nothing.

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