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This Morning….

I never liked her much, but it seemed like a good… learning opportunity for my almost 3 yr old. I am speaking of my chicken, Gertie. She died last night. It was not particularly tragic, but there was great need for verbal and emotional processing. From Isla anyway. And perhaps from me too. The “Part One” of this story can be read here.

We found her this morning, as I expected, stiff and quite dead where we had left her. Although the “Part One” tells the touching tale of Dot, the caring Americana, who “stood” by Gertie’s death bed, supporting her physically and emotionally through her transition – the rest of the story was slightly less… touching.

Last night I loaded Isla into the back on my back, covered her and me against the wet spring snowstorm, and sloshed out into the dark to “put the chickens to bed”. Of course, the goats now get first priority, especially as Bucky is still being bottle fed. But after the goats were tucked in, we headed to the coop to shut the girls and Little Willie up. And, of course, check on the “almost dead Gertie”. I expected another tender scene of flock devotion for the failing Queen. Instead we found Gertie at the bottom of the coop ramp laying the snow and mud, struggling on her side. Ouch. She was bleeding heavily from her comb. I could only imagine one of the other chickens, perhaps the “next in line”, pecking aggressively at her head as she lay helpless and dying on the floor of the coop. And perhaps Gertie struggled to escape, ending in a tumble out the door and down the ramp. It made us very sad.

We raised the hatch on the “chicken condo”, the screwed on coop addition for our expanding flock, and took a look within. Perfect! Only Rosie, sweet Rosie Livingston Seagull Chicken. She was our first chicken and Gertie was our second. They were fast buds for an entire summer of camping in our yard. Rosie would not harm her. I picked up Gertie tenderly and laid her on the fresh, dry, wood shavings inside the condo, and even turned on the heat lamp. Her legs were already growing stiff. Rosie stood, shifted, and nestled back into the shavings beside her dying, old friend. I believed Gertie would be able to pass into the spirit world safely beside Rosie. I HAD to believe, or I would not sleep. Isla witnessed it all over my shoulder by the light of my headlamp – the Biggest Lesson of all – Life and Death and the harshness of Nature. Farm life never glosses over uncomfortable realities. Farm life never says “Oh it’s OK, they’ll just be happy up in Heaven watching over us.” Life and Death is never… “OK”, it just… IS.

And as we lay in the dark warmth of our down comforter, the processing began. Isla is a BIG verbal processor. We talked and talked about Gertie and her spirit and how her spirit would leave her body behind. We discussed how she would not need her body anymore, and that her spirit would go to the spirit world and be free of her physical body and unencumbered. I told her I felt certain that she would be dead in the morning. We discussed the act of burial. And Isla made the obvious comparison to her own dead brother, Rowan. “Will Gertie’s spirit be with Rowan’s spirit Mama?” “That’s hard to say Sweetie. It’s possible. Chicken spirits and little boy spirits may not go to the same places. Would you like for Gertie and Rowan to be together?” She thought long and hard on that question, but the answer never came. She had finally, gratefully, fallen asleep.

With 6″ of fresh, wet, heavy, spring snow this morning, I thought I would wait until after nap for Gertie’s ceremony. I re-dressed my groggy, cranky toddler at 4:30 PM and we headed out the door in our muck boots for afternoon farm chores. Goats first, then scraps and scratch to the chickens, and collection of eggs (only 4 today instead of the usually 7-8). Then with shovel in hand, I hefted Old Dead Gertie by her legs, and we headed out of our gate and across the trail to the vacant lot to the east. I chose a nice spot next to the acequia and stamped the shovel into the clay. It was a mud fest. The clumps of wet snow had soaked into the earth creating a slick bog that a mud wrestler would envy. I dug and dug, determined to keep the coyotes away from her grave. Isla watched, talked about Gertie, and squished her boots into the mud. I laid our old Matriarch in her grave and explained the process of saying a little something and then sprinkling her body with dirt. After I had my go at a chicken epithet, Isla took the podium: “Gertie, you were a good chicken. I love you.”

We sprinkled our handfuls of dirt over her rust colored feathers, the red clay nearly the same color as her body. Then I began a chant, dredged up from my short stint with Paganism, and as we stomped down the dirt we droned along… “We all come from the Goddess, and to Her we shall return, like a drop of rain, flowing to the ocean.” On and on we chanted and stomped as the newest snow flurry blew in around us from the north. And we continued to sing as we slopped back along the edge of the acequia, kept upright by the shared shovel. Green blades of grass poked up through the remaining clumps of snow, lining the path homeward. Our boots were 5 lbs each by the time we reached the coop again, pausing briefly to grab up the egg basket. These signs of rebirth, these cycles of life, were not lost on me…. spring snow, green grass poking through, eggs, and Easter less than a week away. Life and death are forever inseparable. Our compost pile rots all winter to give us fresh wormy dirt for our spring beds. Gertie will go back to the earth and the same red wigglers that once fed her, will feed on her, leading her slowly and steadily back to the Grand Mother of us all.

We sighed, leaned the shovel against the porch post, kicked off our boots and went back inside.

“Take a horned toad, for example. If you think you’re better than a horned toad, you’ll never hear it’s voice – even if you sit there in the sun forever….Don’t be ashamed to learn from bugs or sand or anything.” From The Other Way to Listen by Byrd Baylor and Peter Parnall.

This morning I am learning from my chickens, and I am not ashamed.

**********************************************************************************************

Our very first chicken was a juvenile rescue from a friend – the sole survivor of a fatal attack on her flock by a roaming dog. We named her Rosie, and she badly needed a friend. We asked a farmer friend who we bought goat milk from if she might have an older hen that we could take as a companion for Rosie. She had many chickens and we thought it wouldn’t hurt to ask. Roberta agreed to let us take one of her Rhode Island Reds, who we brought home, and named Gertie.

Summer of 2010: Young Rosie comes home with us to launch our newest farm project - Adventures With Chickens.

At first I was alarmed by the lack of feathers on Gerties rump – a sunburned example of living at the bottom of the pecking order. She was in rough shape – visually at least. Later I understood the wisdom of removing her from her daily torment. As the eldest in our flock of 2, she was suddenly the matriarch hen. Young Rosie followed her about like a good minion, taking the occasional abuse Gertie had learned from her previous flock and now carelessly doled out to her new devotee.

Gertie, our second chicken, sports her sunburn with cranky pride.

We raised mail order chicks separately that spring and finally, as the aspens turned golden on the mountain side, we introduced the 2 flocks into their new coop together. Gertie remained at the top of the pile. Although she recovered her feathers and became a handsome flock leader, she was never nice. She chased the other hens and pulled out their feathers, ruling her underlings with an iron beak. And honestly, although I understood the dynamic that had turned her mean, I have never liked her. Unlike Rosie, who followed me around the farm like a panting retriever, Gertie avoided me like I stank. There was never any opportunity to bond with her. She would not allow it.

Settling into their new home, Rosie and Gertie explore the fresh sod with Isla (then 16 months old).

Building the coop took a long, long, LONG time as Isla was only 16 months old and I was the sole available builder.

"An egg! An egg!" Gertie graces our farm with it's first ever egg! It was a great cause for celebration!

The following summer she was showing her age. She was already 2 or 3 yrs old when we got her – over the hill in chicken years. Her second year with us, at 3 or 4 yrs old, she barely laid any eggs. We always knew her eggs as they were BIG, and she was our only RI Red. Late that summer, after a series of predator attacks on our flock that took 3 laying hens and 4 chicks, Gertie suddenly seemed…. injured? It was hard to tell. She waddled about awkwardly, like a penguin instead of a chicken, way too upright, resting her bottom on the ground instead of her belly. She seemed off balance. She listed to starboard. But she still made it up the ramp into the coop each night. I could not get close enough to her to examine her for issues but assumed she may have been hurt in a tousle with an attacker. I thought each day would be her last as she progressively got worse and worse (yet still remaining able to allude capture). Then one day, instead of finding her dead in the coop, I found her… completely normal. It is still a mystery.

Gertie, lording over her flock. She's the massive bird in the center.

And here we are, another year later. Gertie has really been showing her advanced age of 4 or 5 yrs. She spends a lot of time in the coop, even during the day. She has been drifting in and out of progressive decline for a few weeks. This morning, when I went to wash the water tube, I peeked in the nesting box for morning eggs and saw instead Gertie and Dot, huddled together face to face on the coop floor. Dot, my favorite of our 3 Americanans, was gently and lovingly preening Gertie’s neck and face. Gertie’s inner eye membrane was closed over her eye, giving it a milky, blind appearance. She was drooping heavily against Dot.

Tears sprung unbidden into my own eyes. I was not so much sad for Gertie’s emminent passing – I would not particularly miss her. But Dot’s devoted support of her cranky flock matriarch was more than I could stand. As I watch, Gertie began to droop more and more against Dot, her head hanging lower and lower off towards Dot’s head. Dot carefully shuffled under Gertie’s slumping form, supporting her with her own body as best she could.

Dot has pushed herself under Gertie's side to help support her drooping frame.

And there the two have remained, in that same position, all morning…. waiting. It is hard not to anthropomorphize this touching scene. Do chickens love? I do not know. Do they respect authority? Perhaps. I do remember seeing Dot hanging with Gertie at times, the 2 of them nesting side by side under a favorite sage brush or in the corner of the winter garden. But I have never noticed the apparent devotion I am now witnessing. I wonder if Dot will mourn her passing. Dot was a mail order chick with no mother hen that she had ever known or seen. I doubt Gertie was ever particularly nice to her, and certainly never motherly. Yet here they lay, Dot attending the death watch of her flock leader, patiently, tenderly, waiting and supporting as the current rule succumbs to the inevitable cycle of life and death that none of us can escape.

I know few humans who would do as much for a mean, grouchy, old lady who no one much liked. And it seems so strange to be learning such a poignant life lesson from a chicken. But today, I am trying to watch, and trying to listen, to this feathered teacher before me. And for some reason…. I just can’t stop crying…

A day in the life….

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.

I Milk Goats

Shoosh, shoosh, shoosh, shoosh….

Shifting my butt, I glanced up through the barn doors at the snowy southern mountains. My hands ache from the repetitive motion.

Shoosh, shoosh, shoosh, shoosh…

After 10 days this all seemed so… normal now: me with the shiny stainless steel between my knees, my nose mere inches from a goat’s butt, while Isla jumped off a hay bale, taking turns with her caprine siblings.

Shoosh, shoosh, shoosh, shoosh…

Hazelnut leaned on her right leg and stomped her left hoof once. Being a (self-proclaimed) expert by now, I smoothly slipped the bucket back until she settled, then took her teats again…

…and continued my ruminations on how I might actually be using my college degree in my current Dream Life.

10 days ago, on a stormy Sunday, Isla (my almost 3 yr old), Randy Grubiss (loyal friend and vice president of the Three Goats Health and Fitness Club), and Kim Keyser (kayaker/rafter/neighbor/parmacist), walked ceremoniously through the gate of the goat pen – the gate that was being tied onto the posts as we had not yet had time to mount the hinges. RG carried 20 day old Fiona, Kim – Fiona’s 9 day old buckling cousin Buckbeak, I led Mama Hazelnut on a spare dog leash, and Isla showed us the way through. It was not the ribbon-cutting event I had imaged – me weeping with joy and publicly thanking my husband for his timely change of attitude and undaunting, backbreaking work to help make my Dream of Goats become a reality. I had even imagined breaking a bottle of champagne on the gate post to properly christen the beautiful barn and pen, expensive bubbles succumbing to the force of gravity as they wound their rivulets through the fuzzy cedar bark. But instead of scissors and red ribbons, there was nervous stress, fresh snow and moody skies. Randy, back at his paying job, was conspicuously absent for this monumental event. Molly, our farm Pyrenees, lunged at the end of her cable, attached firmly to the back porch, dying to lick the babies into slimy, wet heaps. The goats were jumpy and frightened. The gate listed. And my fingers fumbled at Hazelnut’s collar.

Breathe…..

Would I be able to milk her? What if Buckbeak wouldn’t take the bottle for me? What if we ran out of hay (a very real concern as a tragic hay shortage was threatening many farms and animals in our area and the supply was just about out)? I did not have enough money saved to stockpile through the 5 months until July and the first cutting of the year – yet. But I would by god! If I could just sell our LED monitor… or my black, leather motorcycle jacket…. or my lovely, old road bike… And how will I get the money together to purchase a used horse trailer before fire season?

Getting a loving greeting from Buckbeak and Fiona at the Pieper's farm.

14 yr old Gwendolyn Pieper says goodbye to her sweet Fiona...

Chris gives Hazelnut some encouragement from the rear. She is not keen on a car ride. And Elana and Gwendolyn get their last snuggles from the kids.

All 3 kids in the backseat. Buckbeak is still sporting his homemade sweater.

Bringing the goats through the gate of their new home.

Randy sneaks home from work to help with the first bottle feeding. Fiona, the amazing lap goat, is ALWAYS in someone's lap!

I had lain awake through a good portion of last summer’s drought, designing mobile goat/chicken/bee barn-trailers to evac the farm animals in case of wildfire (and I didn’t even HAVE goats then!). It was a very real concern as the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s history was raging unchecked a mere 60 miles to the SW, sweeping past the Los Alamos National Labs, past the barrels of nuclear waste stored above ground in fabric tents waiting for a forever storage location to be approved. And that was just one of several fires that had filled our high desert valley with choking smoke for weeks. I finally packed up my 2 yr old and a SUV full of group camping gear and drove…. away. I wasn’t sure how far we would need to go to reach clean air once more. We found an ideal guerilla camping spot in the National Forest, a few miles outside of Pagosa Springs, CO, on the banks of the East Fork of the San Juan River. Over the 10 days the 2 of us were refugees, 3 other Taos families joined us for a few days here and a few days there. It was much harder than I had imagined – guerilla camping with a 2 yr old. Randy had to stay at home as he managed the BLM Lower Gorge rec area. He explained that he couldn’t very well dessert his staff unless they all decided to bail as well. I had made a mad scramble around town before leaving, borrowing enough dog transport cages to hold our entire flock of chickens. I gave him specific instructions on how to catch them, what food to bring, etc. It was all worked out in my mind. But though the smoke was horrific most days with 1 mile visibility at times, he persevered and did not leave his post.

After too long away from home, Isla and I were finally convinced to return. There had been several days of clear skies as the fire had moved north and Papa missed his girls as much as his girls missed him. But the day we began our drive back, the noxious smoke bank moved back in. I pulled into our driveway in tears – both from smoke and from disappointment. I was too tired to turn around and just frigging wanted to be HOME. Ah – but thankfully it was merely a tease and the wind graciously nudged the wall back west in time for my birthday dinner outside in the yard. That was a scary time. I didn’t doubt it may happen again this summer. I needed to be ready to move the animals out of harms way and with very little notice. A dry lightening strike down wind of us could send up a blaze on a windy summer day in a short hour. It could travel north through our neighborhood so fast the wildfire crews would barely have time to assemble and mobilize their rigs. It has happened many times in our town’s history. The scars on the hillsides and painful memories of the great losses of property and forest, remain as proof.

Shoosh, shoosh, shoosh, shoosh…

The pressurized streams of warm milk frothed the surface like one of Isla’s bubble baths. I felt pride at having figured it out after my harrowing trial by fire. Note to others: Never bring home a lactating milking goat, as a newbie, 30 minutes before the previous owners are leaving town… to spend several days in an area not accessible by their cell phone. Just don’t do it. Trust me. Don’t. Hazelnuts teats were beginning to resemble elongated prunes. My job was almost done. I massaged her udder and gave the bag some bounces and jiggles, approximating the abuse regularly given by a suckling kid. A few more squeezes, and I patted her on her rump and thanked her for her milk.

Yup! It’s finally true –

I Milk Goats!

Domestic Diva

That would be…. Me. It’s true. I chose to be one today. It was so preferable over my other choice – doing the exact same tasks while whining about it. Might as well embrace it enthusiastically! Yes?

So while Randy went to work (BLM) for a quick check in, and then to the mill for more lumber, I began my day of devahood. First I showered (with Isla) and dressed (while Isla sat on the floor of the shower, water trickling between her shoulder blades, scrubbing the bottoms of her little feet). Then I dressed the reluctant 2 yr old as well. Next I washed the pile of dishes (from last night’s dinner) and cleaned the counter tops (while Isla alternately became either a goat named Gwendolyn or a girl named Gwendolyn). Then I began the prep for the potato leek soup.

First, I sliced and washed the leeks, then Isla helped me scrub the last of our purple potatoes from the fall harvest. I peeled their nobbly, old surfaces, revealing the violet and lavender meat beneath. Isla walked a large potato around the counter tops on it’s dark purple sprout feet. Taters chopped, I sauteed the leeks in olive oil, added garlic, caraway seeds and pepper, and finally the taters.

I love the spring colors of chopped leeks.

Fresh ground pepper, celtic sea salt, caraway seeds, and garlic.

When I say "the last" of the purple potatoes, I really mean it as we are not planning on planting any purple varieties this spring.

Broth from boiling down some very mean roosters.

All was covered in defrosted rooster broth, salted, and brought to a boil, very slowly. Very, VERY slowly, as there are only 2 working units on our old stove top and both are of the most tiniest variety. I think on the high setting, the big soup pot, reserved for group rafting trips, MIGHT have felt a slight… tickle on it’s nether regions. But it gave me plenty of time to deal with the bread.

No-knead bread dough after the first rise.

I pulled the bowl of dough out of the fridge and stretched the sticky batch into 2 hunks. This is my favorite recipe for artisan bread – 4 ingredients and no-knead. But I kneaded each hunk a few times anyway just because I like to. After rolling the logs in some seeds  and cutting some sexy diagonal slices in the bulging mounds, I placed them on the baker’s peel with a sprinkling of cornmeal between. They rose for the second time beneath a clean towel while I went back to the soup. Then Randy arrived with the lumber.

Who can resist a little kneading?

Rising on the baker's peel.

Next was the kale. RG, here to add more time to his work barter, pulled into the driveway, and pushed through the gate with toolbelt slung over his shoulder. I tore chunks of kale off the stems and swished the pile in a sink of cold water, remembering to chop the stems up for the chickens. The soup was FINALLY at a boil, so I piled the kale on top and stirred it in. Yummmm. I love kale. Have you ever had kale chips? I made an entire dehydrator full last summer and they did not even last 24 hrs. Absolutely addictive!

Ripped kale.

Chickens get all the decent scraps - never just "compost" which goes in another container - and always organic.

“Mama? Can you read this to me?” It was the 3rd book from “elsewhere” that I had passed her to keep her from under foot. She was being extremely wonderful in occupying herself so her request gave me a pang of Mama guilt. I had a moment between the next boil (possibly hours with the stove top handicap) and when the bread would go in the oven. So we sat together in our reading nook and read some Aesop’s Fables.

The percussive waves of rhythmic hammering reached my chest. “I’ve got to get back to the cooking sweetie.” “No, my name is Gwendolyn Mama, not Sweetie, said Gwendolyn.” I have no idea how she developed this 3rd person narrative style of talking, but as it’s been in use for a few months now, we are getting used to it. “Yes… ah, Gwendolyn.” The oven was pre-heated enough (about an hour). I slid the 2 loaves from the peel to the pizza stone and filled the tray on the top rack with hot water. Steam issued from the oven as I slammed the door shut! “OK. Where was I?” I said aloud. Set the table, fill the water glasses, and peek periodically out the window as the siding went up, one board at a time. It was looking more and more like a barn every minute. MY barn. I heaved a happy sigh.

Working on the facia board for the upper clerestory roof.

As I washed dishes a second time, I thought back to my email volley with Elana, from whom I was buying our goats. She had decided that the kid “cousin” I could take, in addition to Fiona and her mom Hazelnut, would be Buckbeak. “Bucky” was 1 of 2 goatlings born in the most recent, and final kidding of the spring at the Pieper’s farm. He was actually 1 of triplets, but the second buckling had been stillborn. Bucky and his sister Prim had had a rough start, confused with the bottle and struggling with sucking from the nipple. They had not been sure Bucky would make it at all, even though he was massive for a newborn. But the siblings had made a strong recovery and were reported to be feeding voraciously as of today. Buckbeak also had an impressive overbite which made his appearance rather… dorky, but also quite lovable. As the castration process would begin in another day or so via the rubber band method (I saw that grimace, boys!), his poor confirmation would never pass to another generation. He would, in fact, be passing through our lives for a short year only…. on his way to our freezer. I had hoped for Hazelnut and 2 doelings, as well as a meat buckling. But in all honesty, it could have sent me deep into overwhelm. I have two hands that can hold two bottles. Two kids to bottlefeed makes the most sense. I ran my sudsy hand through my hair absentmindedly, leaving some decidedly goat-like horns behind. Yes. I think I would take Buckbeak. Fiona needs a play mate. And I don’t need more than 2 milking does next year.

Hot from the stone - delicious!

The oven timer said 5 minutes until blastoff. I opened the porch door, which immediately tried to deck me with a blast of warm, springlike wind. I gave one of my famous, piercing whistles and signaled with a double-handed welcoming wave to the boys. Lunch was almost ready. Isla streaked through the dining room, leaving a bubble of wild cackling in her path. “Honey – I mean Gwendolyn! Put your clothes back on please. We’re about to eat.” I glance back out at the 2 Randys, laughing together as one climbed down from the ladder and the other unclipped his tool belt. It made me smile to see my husband and my X-boyfriend in such camaraderie. They were terrifically good friends and had a connection like no other. I was most definitely aware of how lucky I was to have them both in my life.

As the wind blew in the stubbly, dusty, joking men, I ladled out the steaming soup and plopped a dollop of sour cream on top of each helping. I sawed off hot slices of bread and slathered butter on each. The boys wiped their noses and beamed at their bowls. I tied a towel around the neck of my still naked child, sat daintily on my chair (well, I can try at least), and scooped a steaming, purple potato onto my spoon. Being a Domestic Diva really wasn’t so bad after all.

It might look like dishwater and chicken scraps in this photo, but it is actually divine!

And for a finish to the repast, 77% cacao chocolate, fresh strawberries and coffee.

No rest for the weary. After slacking over lunch, the men are back at it as our next winter storm rolls in. Here, the purlins are being set for the southern roof.

Saws and soup

The winter sun cracked a beam over the top of our eastern hills as I squeaked down the trail through the new fallen snow. Molly, our 80 lb Pyrenees, did her best to pull my arm out of it’s socket. She may be small for a Pyr, but she still does an impressive impersonation of a sled dog, with me as her sled. It was 9 degrees and still, the NM sky a pale, early-dawn blue, the color of Easter baskets. I took in a deep, lung searing breath of crisp, desert morning. Then my mind turned back to it’s mastications….

Randy will go to the mill and get the siding… 1×8’s and 1×4’s….what lengths? I think 8′ and 10’ers…. I need to pick the meat off the rooster for the stew…. chop the veggies and get things simmering…. hope we have enough avocado… will anyone even show up on such a cold morning? Could my friends love me THIS much? I bet no one shows…. I’ll just freeze the rest of the tortilla soup….

Well, apparently they DID love me, evidenced by cars pulling into our muddy cul-de-sac just after 10. RG and Donna arrived first, hefting tools and tool belts out of the hatch. Randy returning next with the lumber, then Jim and Ray, then Jeremy…. I was a bit overwhelmed by this incredible display of support! It had been years since I had thrown a work party. While building our straw bale home, there had been several BIG work parties: the slab pouring, the wall raising (stacking of the in-fill bales), and 2 exterior mudding parties. The loft pony walls still show the slight wobble of a keg tapped a few hours too early. Damn those days were fun! But this time our dear friends were not arriving to help build OUR home, they were here to build a home for our goats.

My other friend was late to pick up Isla and I was trying to figure out what to do with her while the assembled crew told bad jokes and floated their teeth with hot coffee. The ironic thing was Kiersten, who would be taking my 2 yr old to support the work party efforts, was late because she was at the farm where our goats were! Why? She was midwifing out the last of the herd’s kids, along with the farm owners and their 3 collective teenage girls. Kiersten had also caught OUR two babies (the human ones), as midwifery is her full time job! So as I had a quick goat check-in with the Pieper’s to see how our goats, and the laboring mama, were doing this morning, they filled me in that Kiersten was there assisting. And when Kiersten arrived at our farm, covered in goat poop and afterbirth, she filled me in on our goats and the final kidding of the spring at the Pieper’s farm. Sadly, one of the triplets was stillborn. She had even tried to resuscitate the little buckling but he had remained slimy and still.

I felt bumbling and odd clipping on my old, stiff tool belt. It had been a while – full time mommys don’t get much time to hammer nails. Then Donna, designer/builder extraordinaire, my mentor and clone, said the dreaded words…. “Hey Mac! Where are the plans?” Plans? Ha! PLANS? Hee! What was wrong? Couldn’t she see them all neatly there in my mind? I had been planning and redesigning this barn, in my mind, for a couple of years! “Well, uh, ya see, Ranger D…. I was stressing out about that just the other night I was! Where are those plans? And, ya know, after YOU (I turned an accusatory eye at innocent RG) wiped our laptop for us and loaded those recovery disks, well, I just haven’t gotten around to reloading ACAD. And then I had an epiphany, in those wee hours of the night. And a voice said to me….. it said… ‘IT’S AN F’ING GOAT SHED FOR CRYING OUT LOUD! STOP DESIGNING AND START BUILDING!’ And so… we are!” I turned away from 6 blank faces, cleared my throat, and bent to pick up some 1×4’s, groaning as I stood back up. Fortunately, I heard a few chuckles in my wake, and the design challenges were successfully worked out in the field. As I had planned, all along… in my head.

I felt guilty as I tiptoed off through the sage brush to the back porch and scraped the 5 lbs of adobe mud from my rubber boots. I should be out there with everyone screwing, hammering and sawing…. laughing and joking…. telling stories while passing a handful of fence staples to a good friend. But then who would make lunch? Back to the kitchen with you wench! Well OK. I’ll chop these veggies and stir this soup and set this table, but don’t forget I built my own house! (Many, many, many aches and pains and years ago) Well, I did build the chicken coop two years ago! (Please don’t look too closely though.) I think one of the sweetest things I heard all day (other than car tires crunching up the driveway), was Randy, at the end of the long successful day, who lovingly said, “Honey, I know you wanted to be out there with us, but what you did – preparing the meal, getting Isla out the door, getting her down for nap when she returned, and washing dishes while she slept, was equally as important. This day would not have happened without your efforts either.” That man is a keeper. I brushed away a little tear and kissed him on his stubbly cheek (his beard always grows super fast when he uses a chainsaw… which he had).

And by the end of the day the house was an impressive disaster, with an inch of mud on the saltillo tiles and a leaning tower of bowls on the soup smeared counter. But outside, oh my! It was beautiful! About a 1/3 of the stock panel fence was attached to deeply sunk cedar posts, pole barn roof structure was in place, rafters on the south roof, and board and batten siding on 1/4 of the walls. The freshly milled, green wood shone in the setting sun. It had been a very good weekend.

One more weekend like this and I think Hazelnut, Fiona and her cousin or 2 can come home for good. I can almost taste the goat cheese!

After setting 4 posts by hand the previous weekend with RG, THIS weekend Randy rented a working auger! Here are the 6 poles for the first module of the barn.

Digging bars are essential once the layer of caliche is hit. Fortunately the auger sliced through it with ease, although adjusting the location of the hole was often done by hand.

This digging auger was a life and back saver! Here Randy and RG dig their umpteenth pole hole (I think there were 19 posts total for barn and pen, but they actually DUG about 25 holes due to misunderstandings and changed minds).

Here I am giving the auger a try. Niiiice!

Randy and Ray help plumb the post for Jim.

I am trying hard to ignore the mud and debris on Isla's hand wash only wool mittens....I succeeded.

Day 2 of the 3-day project weekend. Beautiful but frustrating. Randy took advantage of the down day by hauling home more lumber, hardware and stock panels in preparation for the following day of clear weather.

Donna, Jeremy and I discuss the lack of lag screws. Fortunately the can of old pole barn nails from our strawbale house building days sufficed.

Randy lops off the post tops with the chain saw. The round of wood he is standing on is part of the goat playground. They also work great as step ladders.

Donna and Jeremy rockin' on the siding. They made a great team! And just to prevent any gossip - they met that morning, Donna is happily married to another lucky fella, and is actually old enough to be Jeremy's mother!

Here is the floor BEFORE lunch... thanks to an escape Pyrenees I know....

Randy gives Jim and Ray a hand on the facia board while Donna steadies the ladder.

Whether goats or humans, I am a mama first.

Love these guys! Jeremy and Donna...

Randy and RG working on the pen fence. For goats, you need nothing short of a fortress. This 16'x50" stock panel is 6 gauge. We will also dig down 12 or more inches to bury more fencing (I haven't yet decided what kind), wire 36" of 18 gauge stucco netting to the bottom of the panels, and string several runs of plain wire above the panels. In my opinion I should not have goats unless I can keep them in their enclosure and keep predators out.

The goat gang, mid afternoon on the second work day. From left to right: Ray Baker, Jim Watson, Randy Roch, Jeremy Jette, Randy Grubiss (RG), Donna Lefurgey, Isla Roch, MacLaren Scott.

The morning after at quiet sunrise..... the first of the 5 modules, so near to completion. The clerestory will bring light and solar gain into the double 6'x8' stall at the back of the barn. The front 6'x8' "lounging porch" will have double barn doors in case of bad weather and space for the milking stand. It might be small, but by god, it IS a barn!

Get my goat?

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!!!

A Taste of Autumn

A sure sign of Falls to come: Isla heading to the car for her first day of school - first EVER!

What is it about bread dough that acts as a tractor beam for pinching fingers of all sizes? Sure, it’s stretchy, slightly warm and velvety soft…. but I wasn’t making wheat bread – I was making a gluten-free variety, much more reminiscent of cookie dough without the sugar or chocolate chips. But no matter, Isla’s appetite for dough is insatiable. And I understood where she got it from as a passing Papa reached in for a finger full. When I am consuming bread, I don’t miss the lack of wheat as much as when I am baking it myself; I have been wheat and/or gluten free off and on for several decades, so I am pretty used to it. But sometimes….. it just plain sucks. Like when I want a hearty calamata olive sourdough to dip in olive oil…. or when we want to make little shapes to bake on sheets. The bread glop was rising in pans (hard to call it dough), so Isla and I brushed off our aprons, and the bits of flour dust from our wool sweaters. Wool sweaters? But it’s only September 5th! That may be true but it was also 44 degrees this morning.

Fall is my favorite time of year – always has been. There is something bitter sweet about it, a slight melancholy, mixed with an exciting wiggling of the stomach. The wiggling is due to my intense love for this approaching season and my excitement of it’s arrival! The melancholy is due to the depressing knowledge it will be over and past oh so soon, with frigid white Winter in it’s place. I have such sweet memories of Autumn from the different places I have lived. In the days of living in a little off-grid cabin in the back woods of New Hampshire, I would stoke up the Shenandoah barrel wood stove and settle back on my cozy sofa to listen to the familiar voices of NPR. Steaming, pressed coffee in hand, my 2 Maine Coon cats vying for position (Sylvester usually drooped his 17 lbs of fluff over my shoulders while Cecil curled demurely in my lap), I would stare into the flames, wondering when my 14 grain, boat-anchor pancakes would hit my colon, washed into place by my strong black brew, and together send me tromping in felt-lined Sorrels to the outhouse. Fortunately, it was one of the nicest outhouses I’d ever had the pleasure to experience. There was a nice stack of reading material on the double-seater bench, several candles, a blanket to throw over shoulders when the trip took more time than planned for, and best of all, a big, arched, picture window looking out on the drifting red and gold leaves of Autumn. That outhouse was lovely in the Fall. As far as Winter goes, I had learned by trial and error. I bought a fuzzy topped, rubber bottomed bathroom rug and cut the perfect sized hole in it. After adding a hanging loop, I could grab it from beside the wood stove on my way to do my leaf peeping, drape it over the frigid seat, and voila! Fuzzy and warm (and easy to wash)!

I brought this rug system to the high deserts of the northern New Mexico mountains (a fresh rug I assure you) when I moved onto my newly purchased mesa lot without a house. A few weekends and a handful of friends had me sneezing my way into an un-mudded, 9x13ft, strawbale hovel, without foundation, and of course without electricity or running water (why change?). But with the addition of a sweet little parlor stove, it was plenty warm. In fact, I could burn a few pieces of trash and it would stay warm for hours. Straw bale structures rocks! And after the application of a few coats of mud inside and out (dug from right out in the yard), my sneezing ceased.

Fall in New Mexico is a very different animal than the Fall in New England with the brilliant colors that leave one weeping from the absolute beauty of the sight. Wood smoke on the air is a given everywhere, but other smells and sights vary drastically. Here in Taos, our biggest harbinger of fall is the smell of roasting chilies. It is a smell that is difficult to describe but gives me that exciting wiggling feeling in my stomach. It always surprises me as I drive through town and see the familiar faces, dark and carved from years of hard work in the chili fields, sitting in the shade of their stall canopies, in the same spot, year after year. Already? Really? But it’s only… oh… the end of August. They fire up their propane roasters, dump in a bushel of shiny green Hatch chilies, and crank the handle slowly while the peppers blister and pop, blackening unevenly along their sensuous surfaces. And the smell is quite simply… heaven.

In place of the flaming maples, we have a kinder, gentler color shift in our quaking aspens from a Spring green to a rich, deep gold.  Shooshing down a single track trail on my bike, rooster tail of golden confetti behind me, is one of my greatest pleasures. We always make a point to hike to our favorite aspen grove in Fall, trying to time it perfectly for the optimal balance of leaves on the ground and leaves on the trees. And then we lie prone on our back, dizzy from the swirling of gold against the dark blue mountain sky, breathing deeply of the primal pungency of rotting wood and leaves, burbling mountain streams, and spongy moss.

Our favorite aspen grove

Mostly chantrelles from this trip

Whereas my New England Falls were all about color, there are more activities associated with my Southwestern Falls. We often head out into the damp, loamy mountains in late August for a wild mushroom treasure hunt. We stick with what we know: king or aspen boletes and apricot colored chantrelles. Then we spend the remainder of the day slicing and drying our haul. Pinion nuts is another wild harvest we partake in. The odd thing about pinion trees is that their nut cycle is a 7 yr one. 3 years ago was the last time our area had a good harvest. I was pregnant with Isla, but still enthusiastic to spread large tarps under the trees and give them a vigorous shaking. Dry roasting in a cast iron skillet and salting is the best way to prepare them. And then you sit down to the laborious process of shelling… which usually results in eating…. which means we have yet to be left with any nuts for pesto. But they are damn good for snacking. Cutting firewood is another Fall activity I always look forward to. Last year we were let in on a friend’s secrete stash – a fire burned area where there was a large amount of dead and standing timber. As the trees had been killed by forest fire, the wood had not grown punky as the beetle kill forests had. We always go for pinion and juniper as they burn the longest and smell the best. The sound of a chain saw is a sure sign of Fall, as is the growing pile of split and stacked wood on the west side of our house.

A lovely early fall hike in our New Mexican mountains

And what is Fall without our annual 4-day raft/canoe trip down the San Juan River? My favorite cottonwood tree is at the group campsite in the mouth of Comb Wash. It is GLORIOUS in October! For 3 yrs we participated in the Halloween “Pumpkin trip” with a group of friends from Durango. We all carved our pumpkins at Comb Wash and lined them up along the foot thick horizontal limbs of the old cottonwood, the tree blazing in fall color to match the glowing Jack-O-lanterns it held. We are looking forward to resuming this ritual next Summer when Isla is another year older.

Looking down on the Comb Wash campsite

The Jack-O-Lanterns march along the massive cottonwood limb

But there were the associated activities in New Hampshire too, of course. My favorite apple orchard, Gould Hill in Hancock, was not to be missed. Driving up the narrow, frost heaved, road to the orchard was like passing through the gates of Autumn. They had the best little lunch box MacIntoshes I have ever puckered my lips for! And later in the season, once the leaves were grounded and brown with a dusting of frost, the bike shop I wrenched at, Peddlin’ Fool Bike Shop, would lead a sugaring ride. This involved linking together several maple sugar farms via single track and carriage roads (as little pavement as possible), all which would be evaporating their harvest that day. The last farm of the ride would serve us up pancakes with hot maple syrup fresh off the fire. It doesn’t get much better than that! And the blueberries… OH the BLUEBERRIES! That was in late Summer/early Fall, and I can remember once getting lost off-trail in over the head-high bushes, my stomach aching from fullness, heavy tub of purple velvet berries in my arms. Heck! Where was the friggin trail? Obviously I survived, but it was a bit more excitement than I had planned for! And oh my, those downhill descents on fire roads blanketed with fallen acorns. Ever ridden your bike over a field of ball bearings? Might as well have been on a unicycle as it was ALL about balance. Reminded me of riding the iced-over snow mobile trails with studded tires in mid January. Those were the days! My younger days, I assure you. Besides, in the Rocky Mountains, we have powder – not boiler plate melt and re-freeze snow. There is no winter biking on trails here. That’s when the tele skis come out!!

But today it was wool… lots of wool. I always overdo it the first day. The thermometer read an afore mentioned chilly 44 and Isla and I were on dog walking duty as Randy was sick in bed (Isla’s first-day-of-school cold had finally clobbered him too). I donned my favorite stretch corduroy pants, merino wool long john shirt, merino wool zip neck sweater, cashmere butt skirt and merino wool socks. This was all topped with a merino wool vest. Isla had hand-me-down red fleece pants (which were immediately covered in cat fur), turtleneck shirt, felted wool vest, merino wool socks, and a winter coat. And with Molly’s lead in hand we were ready and willing….. and sweating bullets within a hour. But it was still fun…. to pretend Winter was here. After our walk we visited with the chickens for a bit, chatting with the baby chicks and the teenagers, Isla in a continuous commentary: “Hi yiddle Dot. How you today? Hi Orpy. You have a yot of poop stuck on your butt. Yook Mama! Mona yet me pet her! Hi Roxy! Can I hold a peep Mama?” God she loves her chickens. And then a hello to the garden and the pond fish, and we kicked off farm shoes at the door and started to prepare breakfast.

I dream of having a fiber farm one day…. of having crates of buttery soft, sensuous wool to roll in. Seriously. I am talking merino, cashmere, yak, angora rabbit, and alpaca. No run of the mill sheep for my sensitive skin. And of sitting in front of a fire on a chilly day like today, wrapped in fluffy creations from my own needles and loom, all harvested from my dear animal family, 20 ft away. Often my dreams come to fruition so I have learned not reign them in.

Since starting this post, almost 3 weeks ago, we have had our first snow on Taos Mountain, our first frost on the pumpkins (which are pathetically small and few), and I even had to scrape ice off my windshield before an early morning solo hike. Fortunately, nothing has yet been damaged in the garden, and the forecast shows an indefinite Indian Summer ahead. If I could find the time to drape the tomato trellis with plastic, toss some handfuls of straw over the kale and carrots, perhaps a quick hoop house over the peppers, we could live off those and the upcoming potatoes for quite a while. I wish farming was as simple as I once thought it would be. But life always trips me up and the tomatoes fall from the vine to rot on the dirt. Then again, I don’t want to sell myself short either. We have many bags of kale, beet greens, turnip greens, and tomato sauce in the freezer, a half gallon jar of dried beans 3/4 full, and many frozen bags of pesto. And soon, I’ll add 20ish quarts of new sauerkraut and 1 box of honey to the list.

August harvest: I went out for dill to make sauerkraut and....

Yep! Fall is here. I can feel the wiggling in my stomach. And I am remembering that anxiety is part of the source along with the excitement. It is “putting food by” time of the year at Back Porch Farm and we are behind and overwhelmed once again. But prioritizing isn’t a bad thing if I can get the guilt out of the bottom-of-the-list items – especially the ones that get dropped completely. We will always be learning. All in good time.

So welcome the season, my favorite time of the year!

“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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