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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!

Never a Dull Moment

I realize I said my next farm to-do item was harvesting Bucky, our meat goat we raised since last spring. But we must roll with the punches of farm life, eh? Last night my farmer friend called requesting to bring over his 2 doelings. He was anxious to get them in on some of the hot action of the royal boudoir. And less than 24 hrs later – here they are!

Katniss (gray and black - the screamer of the twosome), and Prim (brown and gray, the quieter of the two).

Katniss (gray and black – the screamer of the twosome), and Prim (brown and gray, the quieter of the two).

Meet Katniss and Prim, close relatives of my own goats and pre-empters of their kinsman’s fast approaching demise. Prim is, in fact, our Bucky’s sister, and Katniss is half sister to Fiona, Bucky and Prim. And Hazelnut is auntie to Bucky, Prim and Katniss, and mama to Fiona. I know, caprine kinships can sound a bit like the genealogical archives of a West Virginia Appalachia mountain family. But the important thing to keep track of is that King Arthur is no one’s Uncle Daddy.

“But he IS, ah, Katniss’….. grandpa,” informed Chris with a concerned look in his eye. We both shifted our weight from one foot to the other, finding great interest in a passing magpie. Chris rubbed the stubble of his red beard thoughtfully.

But putting the sketchy family tree aside, there’s about to be a lot of action at Back Porch Farm. King now has his harem of courtly ladies and the only question is who will go into heat first. I am considering selling tickets for front row dinning room window seats. Perhaps a complimentary glass of vino and plate of goat cheese and bruschetta? It could be a timely opportunity to make some cash for which there is a list of projects waiting. I might even compete with the Superbowl. Isla could easily be in charge of the half time entertainment. What do you think, 50 bucks a seat? (No pun intended, surely!)

Just back in from evening feeding and putting to bed our suddenly doubled herd. The new doelings are crying like they’re being led to slaughter, and perhaps deflowering is not too far off the mark. But I know the painful mourning is for their mothers from whom they have never been separated, before tonight. Poor little nuggets. I sat on a play stump for some cuddles which Katniss and Prim lost no time in taking advantage of. Their knobby, little heads thrust strongly under each of my arm pits, trying together to topple me off the stump backwards. I regained my balance ungracefully to a snotty, royal snort in my face from the massive head of King. I’ve got to admit I am finding a fond spot in my heart for that stinky, old fellow. His massive back is at such a convenient height for petting, something that ranks high on the likability chart once you’ve turned 50.

I also have to admit I like the additional barnyard members. It helps to satisfy my insatiable mommy need to take care of creatures. I like the rush of fur and lips, the tasting of my gloved fingers, the nibbling on the string of my hood, pushing and leaning for attention, the smell of alfalfa hay on snow, and the warmth of unconditional, furry love. Lots and lots of love. It surges between us like the ebb and flow of the ocean tides…. love out… love in… love out… love in….

Like the soft, milky breath of a newborn kid.

The new improved herd, 50% larger and more absorbent (of grain and hay and water anyway)!

The new improved herd, 50% larger and more absorbent (of grain and hay and water anyway)!

It was a first date and I had the jitters. And with royalty no less! Out the southern window I could see the truck turning onto our road, snow kicking up beneath the back tires, the bobbing headlights cutting through a frigid twilight. I adjusted the shoulder straps of my Carhartt overalls, smoothed the mud crusted legs over my thighs, and hoped they didn’t make me look too fat.

And then I saw him – King Arthur himself – riding high and proud in the back of the pickup, his crusty beard cutting a path before him like a rusty saber. Damn, he was HUGE.

I fumbled on my muck boots and tripped into the front courtyard, head lamp gleaming from atop my wool hat. Jim and I shook hands, our collective breath clouding our first introduction. He asked if I had something that could be used as a ramp. I ran around to the shed and dragged back our pet ramp, previously used for an old Pyrenees. That worked fine for his Lordship, and “King” stiffly decended down his red carpet.

And that was when the reek hit me.

I had heard about how buck goats smelled, I had read about it in books, but experiencing it firsthand was… shocking! I struggled with the rising of my stomach as my gag reflex threatened with menace. But I kept smiling, swallowed stoically, and petted the old goat on his sticky, knobby head. Uck. He was the height of an Irish Wolfhound, his back as high as my waist. More like a small pony in fact. And scruffy, and old, and ugly, and did I mention stinky? Have I mentioned yet the way he STUNK?

Together we led King Arthur into his new digs, the palapa in our barnyard pen. I had safely locked the girls and Bucky in the barn before his arrival – no need to have introductions in the dark. He was enthusiastic about his royal welcome: the bowl of grain rations, the fat flake of alfalfa, the throne of fresh straw, and the shiny new bucket of warm water. Jim and I locked his gate and I gave a quick tour of the barn and yard with the short versions of goatie intros (Jim to my goats). The temperature was already plummeting, fast heading down to it’s predicted -13. We slapped our arms against our sides, stomped our rubberized feet in the snow, made a few quick remarks that required a brief laugh in response, and then high tailed it back to our respective warm retreats – me to the house and Jim to his truck.

And that was that. For that night anyway.

Randy did the animal chores and milking in the morning as I got Isla her kefir and toast. This process was constantly interrupted by my need to run to the north window and watch the courtly proceedings as the caprine courtship commenced. Gates and doors were flung wide with great fanfare and Hazelnut had been mounted and well serviced, in -13 degree temps, before the royal trumpets of sunrise had even sounded! Damn! Not bad for a 10 yr old buck. And he only took a short smoke break before he was chasing her amorously around the pen for a second go, upper lip curled back, neck stretched forward, and tongue flapping and blabbing loudly in Hazelnut’s nether regions like her tail was a microphone and he a punk rocker. Fiona and Bucky, both around 10 months old, were terrified, running away in short bursts of speed to huddle together, necks entwined, behind a sage brush. But they, too, were fascinated, and did not run TOO far off. They were just as glued to the scene as we were. Up close animal sex can really bring out the voyeur aspects of humans and animals alike I guess.

King Arthur has proven to be quite sweet, beneath all that horny, lusting, sexual freight train of hormones and stench. It’s a good thing, seeing as he’ll be here for something like a month. I couldn’t help but notice Jim’s hopefully comment that if we wanted to keep him longer – we could. Ha! Fat chance that! But we do need to be sure we are getting our money’s worth out of the elderly gentleman. First Fiona has to go back into heat (she had her heat a week before King arrived), be successfully bred, and then we need to see if either of our does go back into estrus again 21 days after experiencing the Wild Thang. Pregnancy needs to be confirmed before we get our sweet smelling barnyard back because I plan to have TWO milking goats this spring and a pen full of bouncing baby kids!

King Arthur, the resident "Dirty Ole Man"

King Arthur, the resident “Dirty Ole Man”

Himself.

Himself.

Which brings me to Bucky, our current buckling with the wanky left ear and pronounced overbite. Having been castrated at a young age, he, fortunately, does NOT share King’s “ode de cologne”. What a sweet little skewer of kabobs he is, that little nugget of tenderness. It’s fortunate my deep feelings for him do not exceed the limits of my stomach lining. With King Arthur settled in to impregnate the ladies, Bucky is next on the farm to do list. I have stressed away many sleepless nights imagining the process of harvesting a goat for meat. I have read the most graphic of blogs to learn all the standard ways. I have talked to farm friends to file away as much technical information as I can. Some of the details are still foggy, such as what sort of gun to use and where exactly to place the muzzle on his head bone. Some say behind the eye, some say the back of the head. One website showed the forehead. My nurse friend says I need to find the medulla oblongata and shoot there to scramble all signals immediately. He also lent me a game butchering book which I have yet to look through. I figure the butchering of a deer and the butchering of a goat should be about the same as they are both ruminates. I hope I am right.

But my main goal is for Bucky to experience as little pain as possible, and to know he was loved (well, sort of), respected, well cared for, and had a very pleasant life with us, albeit short. Isla will participate in the blessing we say over him and the thanks we give his goatie spirit for the sacrifice of his body so that we may eat it. I have not yet decided if she will be present when he is shot. She has asked to be. She also wanted to see the headless roosters Randy butchered, the the body of our hen who was savagely decapitated by a weasel. She is pretty tough that way for a 3 yr old – a farm girl through and through. We have talked openly about Bucky’s fate from when we brought him home last spring until the present. She understands. She tells friends that Bucky is our freezer goat. “Everything has to eat,” she explains with an off handed shrug of her delicate shoulders. And we would like to take responsibility in as much of our animal meat procurement as possible, knowing that the animals were treated well, fed well, and lived a healthy life. And also that they were dispatched in as humane a way as possible. I do not want a repeat of the demise of Fiona and Bucky’s father back at their birth farm. I was not present, but heard it took 3 shots to drop Lancelot, and that he went berserk in between, pumping out so much adrenalin that the dogs would not even touch his meat.

And so I pray my shot will be true, because I have volunteered to pull the trigger….

….and the time is nearly nigh.

A Perfect Evening

A perfect evening I almost missed.

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

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

And that was how my perfect evening began.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And to think that I had almost missed it.

August garden

Isabelle with a Tommy under each wing facing opposite directions

Another spectacular high desert sunset from our farm

Living with Lyme

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An opportunity to learn, heal, and grow.

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

Superheros

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me next? Oh don’t I wish.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weren’t we all heros?

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

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

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

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

Rigging the rafts at the put in below El Vado Dam

Isla helps cinch a cam strap

Strapping in the gear

Finally on the river, starting the trip in sun!

A man and his craft. RG (Randy Grubiss)

Isla immediately wanted to help row!

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

Bonita, the trip mascot

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

Remains of the stable

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

Captain Roch back at the helm

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

A family of ducks

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

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

Randy Roch and Greg Gustina take dish washing seriously

Checking on the boats before bedtime

2 birthdays on this trip!

Justin and I unabashedly sing happy birthday to ourselves

Isla stares at the BIG toad

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

Packing back up the next day

Justin and Leilani heading into Aragon rapid

Floating past Tiger Wall

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

Sunday morning hike up the Huck Bay wash

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

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

Meeting a water snake while the trailers are loaded

Our group, heading home

Bye bye Chama River! See you next year.

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

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

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

And now she was gone.

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

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

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

Inky with her first wee peep hatched from our egg.

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

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

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

And the very next day – they were gone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

chocolate?

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