Friday, July 27, 2007

A Time for Every Purpose

Thursday's already gone!?!

Life's little ironies--OF COURSE I would realize that my whole house is infested with fleas the week before guests from Canada are stopping by overnight (a good friend is someone who plans to drop by for a quick visit on her way from Calgary, Alberta to Halifax, Nova Scotia...and you live in Kansas, USA...or is that a friend with a weird sense of geography? Actually, I understand their logic as part of a subtle cultural difference I discovered among the Canadians I met: a more expansive sense of distance than ours, doubtless a reflection of the sparseness of their population and the vastness of their wilderness. )

And OF COURSE my new housemate is preparing to move in the same weekend that guests are here.

And OF COURSE the impending guests/housemate are my motivation to FINALLY finish patching sheetrock, priming, painting, and moving into the master bedroom (I've been "camping out" in the middle room since December, after "camping out" in the kitchen for the first month back in the house after my 2 year absence.) But it's all taking longer than expected.

And OF COURSE I thought I would have time for all this without taking time off from work.

The house probably could not be more torn up if I tried...every throw rug and blanket is hanging on the clothes line after hopefully being de-fleaed in the washing machine, and the floors are all generously dusted with boric acid to try to eliminate the fleas. I have 36 hours to pull it all together...including vacuuming every square inch and...oh, yeah, I don't yet own enough towels to host company, and we'll have to invent a bed for my friend's daughter.

Plus I need to reassemble the bathroom sink drain, and my Friday farm apprentice will be here at 6 a.m. so we can work on a fence together.

I used to panic and become hysterical at times like this. Now--in part through the long, gradual wearing of the farm's slow, patient energy into my way of being, and in part through concerted practice of the Alanon program--I am serene. Worry won't get anything accomplished, anyway. I'll "do my best and leave the rest; 'twill all come right some day or night."

My guests are coming to see me, Toss, the farm...not to criticize my slow progress at home improvement. I slept on the couch at their home when I was travelling in Canada; we spent the afternoon shopping for a few items I needed and running their mundane errands; we walked over to the nearby Safeway to buy ingredients for a simple supper because we would all be leaving for further travels the following morning.

We initially met in even more spartan circumstances two years ago, at Canadian Yearly Meeting in Camrose, Alberta in early August. It started raining--a cold, drizzling rain--the moment I set up my tiny tent (yes, thankfully with ground cloth and tarp canopy), and didn't stop the whole week. Day 2, hypothermia set in since I'd never imagined August could be that cold, and had packed insufficient clothing. The three of us were part of a chilly contingent that slogged to the tiny thrift store the moment it opened, in search of warmer clothing.

So nothing fancy is required here, only my attention to their basic needs, and to enjoying my time with them. "To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven": I'll be "Martha" until I pick them up at the Greyhound station, and I'll be "Mary" until they leave. We'll go to the Merc, the Farmer's Market, and my garden for food with a local flair, and maybe stop by St. John's Rummage House to grab a couple towels and washclothes.

All this is to say that chances of a new blog entry before Sunday or Monday are nil. So have a great weekend!

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Little Red Hen

The story of the Little Red Hen made a BIG impression on me when I was a child. That story probably has a lot to do with who I have become--not that I'm a farmer, but that I'm someone who likes to do things from start to finish.

I trace my interest in and inspiration for raising sheep back to my very early childhood. Mom taught me how to use my fingers to crochet a chain from yarn. I would do this for hours: crochet, unravel, recrochet, re-unravel.

(Hmmmm, that may also be either the seeds of, or an early manifestation of, my penchant for doing repetitive activities, contributing to my eventual career as a farmer in other ways. Like hand-plant onion sets, or pulling weeds, or picking, or swinging the scythe or pulling the bowsaw.)

Anyhow, it's totally in character for me that once I was good at yarn-crafts like crochet (with a home-made hook) and knitting, I would move on (back?) to making the yarn to knit with. And when I learned to spin, using a simple drop spindle (home-made, of course), as a high school student, I suddenly wanted to grow my own wool...and that, of course, meant raising sheep.

Well, here I am. I bred the sheep that grew the wool that I washed and carded and spun and dyed and knitted to make hats, sweaters, etc. And for that matter, I've grown the grain to grind for flour to make bread, though in a very limited fashion. All processes that take many complex steps over a long time, and a lot of repetitive labor. The Little Red Hen taught me to appreciate what goes into making something. She also taught me a slow, patient, diligent work ethic.

But I also learned an important lesson from the other side of the Little Red Hen story: the other animals--the ones who were too busy or too bored to assist the hen with any of the steps, except eating the cookies. The lesson I learned from them was a "what not to do" lesson. Because they didn't help, they didn't get any cookies. I reasoned that if I helped with other people's projects, I would share in the results.

Sometimes it works that way. Sometimes they don't share their cookies even with the ones who helped grow and grind the grain. Disillusioning...and over time can discouraging one from volunteering on someone else's project. Evidently that has happened to others, as well. I find more and more that people want the cookies first, and then maybe they'll help wash the pans...or maybe not.

But at least by helping, even if I didn't get a share of those cookies, I had learned a lot about making my own cookies, starting from scratch.

I look around me in today's world and see a lot of "other animals" and not so many Little Red Hens. Right now, they can go to the store to buy cookies from a factory henhouse. Or they can buy the ingredients and bake their own, and say "I made these from scratch."

But I believe there will come a day, perhaps in the not-too-distant future, when natural disasters or fuel shortages cause widespread interruption of our food supplies. And I'll have been the Little Red Hen, toiling cheerfully away by myself at developing a farm, for years. Everyone who was "too busy" to help out, even in little ways, will suddenly want the food, knowledge and land that I have. Those who are putting their time into leisure activities and pampering, those who put their money into knickknacks and extravagances, those who scoffed at my determination at "not economically viable" activities, will suddenly want to be my friends and share in my suddenly re-valued wealth. Those who have paved their land and turned rich farm ground into sterile parking lots will be hungry for the fruits of my labor, having wasted their own.

It is a hard thing, to see that pattern unfolding among my nearest and dearest friends and relations, busily pursuing their personal gain of material wealth. I'm afraid that someday I'll have hard choices to make about who to share my cookies with. It's tempting to want to beg my favorite "other animals" to change their ways before it's too late, to help me build the farm NOW so that it will be there for them when they need it, when it's too late in some ways. But I can't make that choice for anyone but myself. Like the Little Red Hen, if I wait for others to help me, I'll never get it done.

I will, however, encourage folks to see a documentary called "The Power of Community" ( I watched it for the second time this evening, with a small group of people interested in "Intentional Communities." This documentary of Cuba's energy famine when the USSR broke up speaks of many of the causes and effects that I somehow understood years ago, even before I started the farm. It's an amazing story, and a sobering as well as hopeful one. Let me know what you think of it.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

A Startling Sight

I wrote yesterday about things that never cease to startle me. One of those is large animals lying on their sides.

Sheep are upright animals. The only time they lay flat on their sides, neck on the ground, feet stretched out together, is when they are currently or soon to be dead. Because my main body of experience, and my deepest connection, is with sheep, I forget not all animals are this way. So when I see a large animal with its legs stretched out, my heart stops and I get that sinking feeling that something is terribly, terribly wrong and I begin mentally to prepare myself for either intensive care or digging a large hole.

Freckleface the llama, for example, frequently stretches out for a nap on his side. EVERY time I see him in this position, I think, "oh, no--the heat finally killed him." It is real panic, real certainty that he is dead. And it is panic doubled by my understanding of the size of hole required to bury a llama, compared to a sheep. I call his name...the mound of white and red mottled fur blows in the breeze, but there is no sign of life from a distance. I walk closer, my heart in my throat, sure that this is the one time he isn't tricking me. I call his name...again, louder. Nary a twitch.

I fumble with the gate latch. He lifts his head, looks around at me using more joints than any proper neck should have, waggles a scornful ear at me, heaves himself to his feet, and makes a leisurely trip to his dung pile to relieve himself.

Jasmine, the pony I once had on the farm, did the same thing.

The other night while I was enjoying the dark of the pasture, I walked clear out to the center of the pasture to check the fences where the various paddocks converge. As I turned to walk up the lane towards the house, something large and dark in the pen where the sheep were grazing caught my peripheral vision. That feeling of dread..."oh, no, I'm going to have to dig a grave" ...came over me.

But what WAS it? It looked like a cow. It was too big for a sheep. It was even too big for Freckleface. And it was BLACK. Nothing on the farm is that big, and black. Where had the Angus cow come from? Puzzlement began to replace dread as I walked toward the darker lump on the dark pasture. I could see legs, a neck, a bulging belly.


Then I realized that my newest volunteer, TB, had cut a hundred feet of 4" diameter corrugated black plastic drainpipe into 3' lengths for me, to use for insulating metal t-posts for use with electric fence wires. I'd decided to leave the pieces randomly piled in the pasture until we worked on the fencing project again.

My "dead cow" turned out to weigh just a few pounds, not the hundreds I'd been bracing myself for. What a relief! Joke's on me (it usually is, might as well enjoy it)

Friday, July 20, 2007

Source of Darkness

I tend to write posts in my head while I'm working. Then I'm never quite sure whether I've actually written them online before, or not. So if I repeat myself, bear with me. And most likely each entry will reflect a slightly different slant of light, a changed point of view, a seasonal progression, on the repeated theme. If my repeated stories bore you with repetition, you can always go play a computer game or something instead of reading them.

There are things that amaze or startle or please me everything I notice them, no matter how often I notice them. ("Notice" is the operative word here...I may see them many times a day without consciously focusing on them them.) The new, improved darkness at Pinwheel Farmis one of them.

Tonight the "yard sheep" were still gated in their electric-fence "day pen" while I filled their feed troughs with a mix of grain and alfalfa pellets. It was somewhat later than usual, and they were eager for supper. Before I could release them to run over to the night pen, a few of them pushed through or under the electric fence. Not good. After getting them settled in the night pen, I set about checking the fence.

The tester is simple. You stick a probe in the ground near the fence, then touch the hook at the top of the indicator panel to the fence wire. Lights flash with each pulse of the charger; the number of lights illuminated shows the volts being carried through the wire. 1000 volts is clearly not nearly enough. I like the fence to run at least 3500 volts; 5000 or 7000 is even better! Wool (when dry) is a good insulator, and the older, wiser sheep DO understand the concept of "no pain, no gain" until the pain is significant. Low voltage feels like a vague tingling; 3500 volts is like being stung hard by a wasp; 7000 really knocks me back and leaves me, or parts of me, feeling very strange for awhile. At least that's my experience.

Since I worked on the pasture fences today, it made sense to test them first. With a few scattered clouds reflecting some city lights, I could just find my way without the headlamp. So I turned it off and let the darkness settle in around me, let my eyes adjust to the dark. Dark! Real country-style dark!

When I started the farm, I stood near the Willow Row (then 3' tall) and counted over 80 (eighty!) lights visible to the north and west from where I stood, without moving. Tonight I counted 7: a more than 10-fold reduction. I could reduce it to 3 by moving just enough that the crosspiece of the Torii obscured them.

I don't think there are fewer lights out there. It is just that the 3' tall willows are now over 40'tall, with dense foliage. The Baby Forest (a mowed strip of brome 12 years ago) is tall enough to entirely obscure the Juvenile Detention Center to the northwest, as well as UPS, the city Solid Waste Dept. yard, Burger King, the hotel, and the I-70 interchange (all within less than a half mile of the farm). Harry's popcorn is doing its seasonal job of darkening the eastern horizon. And the farm is DARK! I can see stars, more than ever before!

I love the darkness itself, never mind the stars. It's a comforting thing for me, a rest for eyes jangled and harried by overload of lights and computer screens and the daytime visual riot of greenery (on the farm) or traffic and structures (off the farm). A kind of visual quietness that soothes my spirit.

The peace and serenity of the dark farm at night, sheltered from the surrounding hubbub of commerce, reminds me of my desire to assure its future. In part, this is the purpose of the fencing I did today: protecting a row of tiny pecan seedlings that will grow along the eastern fence, eventually screening the lights in that direction. I need to create a dense perimeter planting further south, too, where Harry's corn grows high in the summer. Then I will have this marvelous darkness through more of the year!

The darkness makes troubleshooting the fence easier. The lights on the tester are easy to see, compared to my sturggles to see them in bright sunlight. And the faults are easier to see, too, if they create "arcing and sparking" rather than a "dead short".

1000 volts implies a vague short, not one where all the power drains to ground. At the entrance to the pasture, I shut off various branches of the system in a carefully ordered sequence until I shut off one whose disconnection sends the volt reading back up to a strong 3500. I start walking that line--in this case, the main one, to which I added new fence today.

Reaching the north end of the central lane, I hear the rythmic snap of an arcing short, and follow the sound. Soon I see the arcing, like a firefly fixed in one spot. A splice in the polytwine fence wire, made by knotting two strands together end-to-end with the "water knot" that a firefighter friend showed me, has long ends that are sticking out. One end barely brushes the t-post bove the plastic insulator. A quick flick with the hooked end of the tester restores silence along the fence.

The sheep are secure for the night now, enjoying their new pasture while confined from devouring the newly-transplanted pear trees bordering the main lane. And the darkness is increasingly secure, as more of the source of my darkness comes from the farm itself, instead of depending on neighbors.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Laying Low

My friend Sue, who runs a fairly large (by local standards) organic vegetable farm in south central British Columbia wrote this profound statement:

"Life is not really on the farm, it is the farm - the sweat from my body and energy from my hands giving life to the babes in the fields that turn into the veggies sold at market. Any moment away and the cycle is broken allowing the weeds to take over and control the world. "

The farm--that separate entity that includes all its component beings in the way my body includes various cells and microorganisms--has been HOT this week: mid-90's in the afternoons. Thankfully, the nights have been pleasantly cool (upper 60's-low 70's), so it isn't yet our typical relentless heat of August.

This is the beginning of the season I "lay low" (my personal term for it; another friend refers to "lurking") for the better part of a month and a half. Not just in the heat of the day. Even in the cooler morning and evening hours, I'm less inclined to active work than when the highs are, say, in the mid-80's.

Reflecting on this while driving an air-conditioned bus, I realized that "laying low" is bigger than a mere personal response to comfort conditions--hence my difficulty with motivation to work even in the delicious, dew-dazzled mornings. It's instinctive compassion and accommodation for the burden that the farm's beings are enduring now. We're all in this together, me and all the life of the farm. Its life is mine, and we're hot.

The sheep are hot; they lurk in the shade through the hours with overhead sun. They don't feel like eating much...both because they don't want to be out in the sunny pasture, and the digestion of food generates internal heat. I don't feel like eating much, either. I avoid even going outside and doingthings near where the sheep are, knowing that seeing me at certain activities can rouse them to stand up and come see if, perhaps, I'm pulling any really especially delicious weeds to throw over the fence to them, or opening the gate to a fresh paddock. Their heat-reduced grazing ocurs at the same time that the parasitic stomach worms, haemonchus, are most prolific, so that the sheep struggle to keep their weight, and they are often challenged with anemia from the bloodthirsty worms. Dark colored sheep are generally affected more severely, because they heat up faster in the morning sun and retire to their favorite lurking spot before their paler companions.

I've noticed that I haven't written about them much lately. Thinking about that, I realized that as I become more aware of our interspecies non-verbal communication*, I'm more attuned to them knowing what I am thinking. Thus, it seems like writing about them would rouse them from their lurking unnecessarily. This time of year I tend to think about them as little as possible, while still meeting their needs as well as I can, and listening to them when they voice concerns.

It's not just the sheep. All beings of the farm are burdened by the heat, stressed by it. I hesitate to walk on the grass because I know the dehydrated leaves can't recover as easily from broken cell walls, crushed by my footsteps. I hesitate to order feed until it rains (hopefully thunderstorms tomorrow?) because the pressure of the tires of the huge delivery truck will leave tracks of beaten-down, dead grass that will show for a long time. If I pick it up myself, I could use the garden cart to haul it a few bags at a time...but even the balloon-bicycle-style tires and my feet will wear a path far more quickly this time of year than any other.

My thoughts do turn to relentless pruning of shrubs and trees. Pruning alters the ratio of root (water absorption) to leaf surface (water loss through transpiration), helping the plant endure conditions where transpiration exceeds the plant's ability to take up water. But first--is the overgrown plant shading a desirable plant? Will the reduced competition for soil moisture offset the increased transpiration from greater sun exposure of the sheltered plant?

I deliberate about whether to pull weeds at all. First, it's just plain hard work to pull them (large or small), with the ground beginning to bake fairly hard under heavy weed growth where the mulch is thin. But there is the delicate balance of shade vs. soil moisture to consider. And pulling them will disturb whatever mulch there is, and expose previously un-exposed soil to the baking sun and drying wind, so that more soil moisture evaporates. Tradeoffs.

Often I opt for simply cutting back the weeds, knowing that they will regrow and I'll have to do it again. Or, where I can, using portable electric fences to run the sheep into weedy fallow areas where I want to conserve soil moisture for fall planting, as well as prevent weeds from seeding. The cut weeds can be thrown to the sheep in their shady spots, encouraging them to eat when otherwise they might not.

My preferred cutting tool is the Austrian scythe previously mentioned. My grass blade suffered serious damage a few weeks ago, and I'm waiting for the replacement, watching the foxtail grass top 5' tall with its graceful arching seed heads.

It's a good excuse, anyway, for laying low right now.

*In years of "working" sheep, I've noticed that they KNOW which one I'm looking for, which one I'm about to grab. I've learned that looking at a different sheep isn't quite enough to fool them. I have to THINK about a different sheep, too. Likewise, when milking, I learned that they set boundaries for how far my thoughts could stray from the task at hand. Daydreaming too far afield resulted in a swift foot in the milk pail.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Gentle Reader:

(I've always loved in old books where the author suddenly interrupts the tale to address the reader directly and personally)

Some of you comment, and I know that you are reading my blog.

Some of you send me private emails in response to my blog, and I know that you are reading my blog.

Some of you see me in person, and tell me you are reading my blog, and I know that you are reading my blog.

But there are MANY of you out there, I'm sure, that have done nothing to let me know you are reading it.

And more than any other writing I've done in my life, this writing is for an audience--which includes YOU!

Yes, it's very much for myself first--it really IS the only journal I'm keeping right now, which is something for someone who has almost always kept a private paper journal writing sometimes dozens of pages a day.

Second, it's for Mom and Dad, and if they were the only ones reading it, that would be enough. Our lives are all so busy it's hard to keep them in touch with the fascinating things that go on here (I've seen several LARGE Ichneumon wasps in the past few days, for instance--unfortunately none long enough to run for the camera. This morning's was about 2 " long, with a 3-4" ovipositor--Thorton Burgess's "Thallessa" reincarnated, for sure! I'm guessing they're attracted to the piles of wood chips I've gotten this year, or firewood that's lying around, since the only time I've seen them in the past was decades ago at 1030 Vattier where I had a path made of rounds chainsawed from dead trees.), that I know they'd enjoy. I know Mom and Dad would enjoy them because they taught me my own enjoyment of them when I was a child, and for that lifetime gift, I bless them.

I know Terry is vicariously experiencing the farm life she might have chosen for herself years ago, through my blog, and I'm glad to help her in that endeavor while she works a computer programming job. I'm sure someone has to do that, and I'm glad it's not me! You program, I'll farm! What other onerous jobs am I getting out of, Readers? What do you do while dreaming of farming as you read my blog?

I know several of my Canadian friends read it regularly to keep in touch with me across the thousands of miles between our lives, and I try to check out their blogs as much as I can given the slowness of my dial-up internet service. I hope to see them again, and then it will be easy to resume the friendships knowing something of our individual journeys in between.

But Blogger does not give me a reader count or any other information about you, so it's up to you to keep in touch. I'd like to know how many people are reading it...and in some cases I know that's more than a computer-based counter would show, since I know Mom is looking over Dad's shoulder and won't touch the computer herself for fear of zapping the hard drive with her personal magnetism or whatever it is (it's happened before).

I'd also like to know what you think, what mundane or profound questions it brings to your mind. Maybe they are questions I can answer. Or reflect on privately or in a blog entry. Or if personal we can connect outside this public format to discuss, by email or phone. Maybe there are types of posts you'd like to see more or fewer of...can't say I'll honor that, but it would be nice to know what people enjoy. Let me know what moves you, inspires you, turns you off.

But mostly, I'd just love to have an idea how many of you there are. Be anonymous if you like.

If, like my sister Ruth, you aren't sure HOW to comment, it's easy. At the bottom of each post there is a line at the bottom of each post that says "Posted by....comments". Just click on "comments" and the comment window will open up. It's pretty simple.

Looking forward to hearing from you!

--The Author

Monday, July 16, 2007

Zebra in the Zoo

It might have been in an email, on a listserv, even in an earlier article in this blog (I'm too tired to search it out). But within the past week or so, I characterized my plight as a possibly-soon-to-be-urban farmer as becoming like a zebra in a zoo, a novelty to show the children, a relic of some distance time and place: "Look, Daddy--a real farmer!" "zebra in a zoo" has a nice sound, and I've added the analogy to my "personal mythology", my collection of cliche phrases that signify something much broader and deeper than they seem to at first glance.

As I was typing that original sentence, I paused to think of the right animal to use. I didn't want to characterize myself as a monkey--too cliche, too Darwinianly confusing a metaphor. Nor a big cat--not wanting to convey any sort of power or arrogance or bloodthirstyness. I'm too forgetful to be an elephant. No animal that has a strong current cultural mythology attached to it would work (at least, "current" in my definitely dated mind).

Zebra had a nice alliterative ring, and I've always identified with horses. It's a peaceful grazing animal, but fast, capable of defending itself fairly well, and evidently known for being next to impossible to tame. And black and white animals are sort of a theme in my life, beginning with the stuffed velvet skunk that was my one and only stuffed animal in childhood, and ending with my beloved Border Collies.

But I'd never really identified much with zebras before...just thought of them as sort of a horse analog if I had to pick a wild animal.

My daughter, however, identifies the zebra as "her" animal. THAT goes back to a gift I received in her early childhood, a gift that came to symbolize a powerful story in my life, the story of....


I tried to get a college degree as a very young single mom, but after a few semesters realized I just needed vocational training so I could get a job to get off of welfare and support myself and my toddler. I chose printing as a natural "go-with" for my chosen field of graphic design. I was only a trifle older chronologically than the average student in the class, but decades older in maturity and overall dedication to my schooling, compared to the class of young singles who preferred playing cards back in the paper storage area to actually doing production printing.

Towards the end of the year, the class was invited to send three students to demonstrate their skills (page paste-up--which will date you if you know what it is!) at the Kansas Press Association convention in Wichita.

The instructor addressed the class: "Natalya will go, of course. Who else should I choose to go?" A furor instantly arose. "She gets to do everything!" "She's a teacher's pet" "Why HER?" "She's so aloof and uptight, won't even play cards with us." Nine months of resentments flooded out, belittling me, calling me names, and blaming me for their lack of learning in the self-paced program. I was totally taken aback by their venom; I collapsed into humiliated tears. I would have loved to have been able to play cards with them, to goof off and just be another post-high-school kid! The truth was, I didn't know HOW to play cards, or to goof off, or to just be a kid.

Wisely, the instructor took a figurative giant step backwards. "Hmmm. OK, you each write down the names of the three people you think have worked the hardest, have the most talent, and will represent the school the best, and the 3 people with the most votes will go." I buried my head in my arms, certain of further humiliation.

The most votes went to--ME, despite their hostile words just moments ago. I couldn't believe it. The instructor, in his wisdom, had forced the students to answer their own angry questions by searching their minds for the truth of their own experiences and observations. They came to the same conclusion he had reached.

We three stood at paste-up tables in the middle of a carpeted conference room, well out of our element (dilapidated equipment on worn, stained vinyl flooring), diligently trying to focus on our work. Publishers, senior editors, and who knows what other Newspaper Professionals (read: potential future employers) milled about us, watching us do work they surely watched their own staff do much more efficiently everyday, Obviously Noting (back in the days when powerful men could get away with it) that we were three attractive young women approximately their daughters' ages but NOT their daughters. We kept our eyes on our work, and performed well under pressure. No fingers sliced by careless Exacto knives. We remained calm and professional. It was excellent training. Later that year I was employed as a page paste-up person for a daily newspaper, and relived that experience daily as the publisher and editors stood over me, watching my every move assembling the front page.

As a token of appreciation for our demonstration, the KPA gave each of us a gift: a china zoo animal inside a little bamboo cage. Mine was coincidentally a zebra, which lived out its life with me as a misfit in my collection of horses, and eventually became my daughter's. How fitting the cages were, considering the way we were on display like zoo animals for the convention attenders to admire!

My life eddies about me in random ripples that turn out to be patterned in a fascinating, subtle, chaotic fashion. Then, I was gawked at as a student demonstrating a skill that was commonplace at the time but was already, unbeknownst to any of us, already becoming obsolete. Now, I am gawked at for being audacious enought to learn, live and practice trades--market gardening and raising sheep on a small scale, demonstrating hand spinning of wool at Farmer's Market, living a somewhat Luddite life with no TV-- that are also obsolete.

But there's a difference. In the age of Pagemaker and laser printers and direct-to-plate makeup, the world can get along just fine without silver-based phototypesetting and hand paste-up. But someday we may not be able to eat without the skills I'm helping to keep alive.

It just takes a stubborn, intractable zebra to stare back at the gawkers and do it anyway. I might bite and kick now and then, but only to keep from being put back in that little bamboo cage.

A Thousand Journeys, One Step

I find that I often drift from one project to another. Once this meant never finishing anything, and never getting things cleaned up and put away. This resulted in the mess and chaos that I'm slowly overcoming on the farm (and in my life).

Now I'm realizing this is an essential part of who I am and how I do things. It has its blessings, though some have a hard time seeing that. But I'm working to refine my habits. I'm getting much, MUCH better at finishing projects...eventually, in their own good time. And I am slowly getting better at cleaning up and putting away after working on things, and especially after finishing projects. I want to make these changes, because I like the results I see when friends model these habits.

Tonight's perambulations: Sunday night is the night for taking out the trash. I've been trying, little by little, to use Sunday evenings to de-clutter the farm just a little bit more each week. What can I let go of, what can I set by the street for the trash truck at 6 am?

Tonight, enjoying a cool evening after a hot afternoon, I thought it was high time to drag out the box fans and see if any worked. Amazingly, they all did--no candidates for the trash can. Actually, I would have had to make a hard decision about whether to just pitch them as quickly as possible, or keep them around until my next load for the metal recycler.

But so dirty! I dragged one into the light of the kitchen. After taking it substantially apart, I took the grates out on the front porch to spray them down with the hose. But first I watered the burgundy-leafed redbud trees I bought and planted last Sunday. Then back to the grates. Then into the kitchen to clean the motor. Maybe I'll take that apart somewhat...and I bravely did.

It's a thousand little journeys, and one step moves me a little bit further along each one. Enjoying the cool night air on the front porch with beloved Toss, knowing that I won't always have her loyal, quirky companionship. Ridding my life of one more layer of grime left by the tenants, while at the same time getting the fans ready to cool the house as the weather heats up. Increasing my courage and confidence in fiddling with electrical appliances, moving towards more scary projects like a new light/fan unit for the bathroom. (I know I'm capable--I took a house wiring class 30 years ago, and helped rewire two older homes. I'm just nervous dealing with electricity on my own...I'll work through it, little by little.)

On paper, this fan project is a real loser. I could have bought a new one for the amount of time I spent on this old one, calculated at my bus-driving hourly wage.

But the very point of doing it, aside from the above aspects, is simply the act of doing it...a meditation.

The point of journeys is to enjoy them, and the farm is an excellent journeying-place. I'm enjoying these journeys even more as I learn to slow down and let them each be a part of a gentle, surprising lifetime journey, not a collection of one-year, five-year, and ten-year plans or goals. Enjoying the journey includes doing half a project sometimes, knowing that the fragments will add up to something beautiful in the long run.

Like a leaf here and a leaf there adds up to a tree, eventually.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Rights, Lefts, and Where the Roads End

Quoting from Flock Talk: News of the Kansas Sheep Industry:

"Animal rights or animal welfare? These two terms are not synonymous. Animal rights is the belief that animals have the same rights as people and people should not use animals for any purpose--food, clothing, experimentation, etc. Animal welfare is the belief that animals deserve humane treatment at all times. The sheep industry, along with all other livestock industries, believes in this premise."

MG and I drove up to Atchison County this sunny Suday morning to take Luna to my friend who breeds and trains working and competition (sheep herding trial) Border Collies. Luna will be there for conditioning (she's chubby, soft-footed, and lost a lot of muscle tone during her confinement for heartworm treatment, and I don't have the time to work her hard enough to rebuild her), training, and hopefully sale to a handler who can help her express her full natural talents. She's a competition class dog, and I can't ever help her live up to her potential on my small farm, with such a busy schedule. When my beloved old B.C., Toss, can't do my simple chores any longer, another "rescue" Border Collie will surely come into my life, as Toss did 9 years ago.

Vast acres of corn and soybean fields roll over the hills between here and Eldemar Farm. We're crossing a tiny portion of the breadbasket of America--our source for food, fuel, plastics, a huge array of products. But when one is out in the middle of it, it is intimidating. How could this huge land possibly produce food for humans when we can no longer depend on cheap oil to plow, fertilize, control pests, harvest, dry, transport, and process crops? Well, the way it was broken: With horses and oxen.

But we have a changed society, a society that is in the process of re-writing its contracts with the animal kingdom, one pet at a time.

I had an odd conversation with a vegan friend the other day, an animal rights enthusiast. Normally we just focus on our common interests--gardening and sustainable living--and the ideological gulf between her veganism and my shepherding doesn't come up. But this time I innocently commented that the extensive chemically-manicured acres of lawn around some local factories would be much more sustainably managed as pastures and hayfields--for sheep, of course. She replied, "Well, yes, when everyone wakes up and stops killing animals, we'll need somewhere for the animals to live out their lives during the transition...."

Is turning them loose as prey, vulnerable to diseases, parasites, and predators (coyotes are animals, too, and the lion has yet to lie down with the lamb), "humane" and an expression of their rights, when they have been selected by humans for thousands of years to live in harmony with us, people and sheep taking turns feeding one another in environments where neither could survive without the other? Or will society decide to actually pay some of us for the relentless skilled labor of husbanding them, as I do with my sheep? Will we sterilize them to allow their numbers to dwindle by natural death, or let them multiply until they have devoured every green space around them, and die of starvation? Will she let them eat her tidy flowers and kitchen garden, or demand that they be fenced in somewhere at great expense and labor?

Would she allow the use of horses as draft animals in place of tractors? If not, how many people in our cities would starve before they learn the complex skills of farming with their bare hands to produce all their own food but also food for those who are physically unfit for such labor, and those who are shepherding the retired sheep that want to eat the hard-won fruits of manual farm labor? Is subjecting them to "very intensive labor, expecting little in return" (quoting a disgruntled former apprentice, not surprisingly a "city girl") for their own sustenance "inhumane"?

The rolling corn fields, where we turn right, left, then right again, are bordered at every swale and creek by woods. We see several families of deer browsing on tender soybean leaves at the field margins. This is an environment that, without the plow or fire or relentless grazing, would become forest in a couple decades, forest that would offer very little nourishment for human sustenance. Without chain saws, the thought of tackling that forest is daunting. I know. I'm watching this cycle on my own farm, a miniscule 11 acres which seems huge at times. It began 11 years ago with not a single tree; now there is a large "baby forest" and trees are my most tenacious "weeds" in the garden. Trees I planted with my own hands, or watched spring from seeds, are now 40' tall.

In a dream/vision, years before I came to Pinwheel Farm, I had an encounter with a deer:

I was part of a group of people attending a retreat at a cabin among wooded hills. At night, I stepped out of the cabin into the darkness, away from the noisy fellowship of humans into the sibilant, busy quiet of the cabin clearing in the woods. As I stood under the stars, a group of deer moved into the clearing.

One of them fearlessly approached me. I was in his space, I was the intruder. I was not afraid, but in awe of him.

He looked me directly in the eye, mere feet away from me, challenging. I listened. He spoke telepathically, directly into my mind [I have since found that my sheep actually do this in real life, on occasion].

"We don't mind if you hunt us," he said. "It's a game to us, we don't mind testing our wits against yours. It's a fun challenge for us. You get to make the rules--that's ok with us. All we ask is that you play by the rules you have chosen. Don't spotlight, don't hunt out of season, don't hunt on the roads or where the signs say "no hunting". Hunting's fine with us as long as you play fair."

He kept looking at me for a long time. He's right, of course. It doesn't matter to a deer how it dies. It is born to die. People might as well eat it, as maggots, vultures, or coyotes. It DOES matter that we are honorable in our dealings with animals.

In my heart, I vowed to him, to all deer, to all prey animals, that I would honor the rules and insist that others do likewise. With considerable relief, feeling lightened of a long-time burden, I looked forward to a long life as a guilt-free omnivore.

I do the best I can by my sheep, my dogs, the goldfish in the stack tanks, the wild things here. We are all in this together, this community of life at Pinwheel Farm.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Working Sheep

I can't bring myself to give my loyal readers just a bunch of political musings, when I've spent most of my day off from bus driving enjoying the fullness of life at the farm in this season.

This morning a fellow shepherd came and helped worm sheep. One of my apprentices, MR, watched and assisted. Dozens of little refinements to the system suggest themselves...of course, they do every time I use the handling chute. Reverse the swing on the main holding pen gate. replce the wooden tracks for the "guillotine" style gates so that they move freely and don't bind. Reconfigure the holding pen to channel the sheep into the chute more effectively. Additional boards along the back of the chute to discourage jumping. Block the view of the "done pen" from the holding pen. Lamb-proof the gate that's made from a pipe horse panel. Make a handle for the sort gate.

Maybe I WILL get them done in the next three weeks before the next worming.

MR and I also got out the "Sheep Sofa" and trimmed hooves on a few ewes that had overgrown hooves. (photo at; this website is NOT where I ordered mine from many years ago but the product is identical.) It's a wonderful tool, well-designed to use simple physics (akin to judo) to position a sheep in a reclining position at a comfortable working height. The sofa and herd are in a small pen, but with some elbow room. You calmly walk through the herd looking at every sheep EXCEPT the one with the purple chalk on her nose (we marked the ladies that needed pedicures as we ran them through the chute for weighing and worming), until the unsuspecting customer is near the sofa. Then you quickly put an arm under her head, and grab her tail or a handlful of wool on her rump. With her nose pointed in the air, she'll tend to step backwards, and you steer her back towards the sofa until her hocks are at the lower bar. Then, a quick lift of the head with a hand under the front elbow flips her backwards onto the sofa, feet in the air. In this position, the sheep tend to relax and not struggle. Having a helper to steady the head does help prevent the occasional escape artist.

I trim hooves with a light pair of very sharp shears of a type known to gardeners as "vine pruners". I end up buying new ones every so often...the old ones going into garden or forestry duty. A tool in good condition makes the work so much easier.

Hoof condition is an important factor in trimming. Today, the hooves were perfect. Not so dry that they were difficult to trim, not so wet that they were muddy and yucky.

Later, we walked over to begin planning the temporary fences for the rented pasture next door. I pastured sheep on "Spencer's Pasture" my first couple of years with sheep, before I had any pasture on my farm. It's good to be back there...feels like coming full circle, older and wiser and more mature. The pasture has changed, several years of not being grazed, it has grown up in small elm trees. The sheep will enjoy eating their leaves and stripping their bark, and eventually the pasture will be open pasture again.

Towards the end of the day I weeded the potato block. The plants are huge and luxurious, and the blocks look tidy under their hay mulch. The potatoes are blooming, rows of purple and pink and white. I was surprised to see a few Colorado Potato Beetle larvae. They are so uncommon a pest on my potatoes that my response was, "Wow! Look at that! Haven't seen one of those in a long time!" instead of, "Oh, no! Not more of those."

I decided NOT to pick them off and crush them, nor feed them to the chickens. The vines are so huge that it's unlikely that the beetles will do much damage. Blister beetles are also eating the potato leaves. Again, the plants will do just fine without those leaves.

I didn't want to walk all the way out to the pasture at sunset, because I was tired after weeding the potato blocks. From the yard and garden, huge trees block the sunset view. But when I looked down the lane to the north, I saw that the best sunset colors were actually in the north, setting a stunning magenta backdrop for the Torii. I leaned on the barn gate, and felt a weary, calm contentment.

This is where I am supposed to be. God and me are in our heaven (or at least one little corner of it), and all's right with the world.

Action Update

Yes, it is still a serious matter, and will be for a long time. If this proposed project is rejected by the community, another one will be proposed. (The previous big development proposal for this area was a casino, proposed by the Delaware indian tribe that owns land in the area. It is interesting to ponder how this current project could be approved without allegations of discrimination cropping up.)

No, I'm not dropping daily life to panic about it.

After initially responding from my old-style "panic mode", I've calmed down and realized that in this, as in all things, I can trust that God is at work. How and towards what end, I have no idea. But all I need to do is figure out what exactly is my own business in all of this, and mind it, one step at a time. And keep my side of the street--or ditch, in this case--clean so that I'm acting with integrity and living out my values.

In this case, as in most, the first thing I need to do is get the facts from the people who have them. In this case, that meant a visit with the City/County Planning Office staff.

In 2000, when the North of North Street long range development plan was developed (but apparently never approved, even in draft form), quoting from an article in Pitch, "The city's policy is to annex property when it is surrounded or nearly surrounded by city limits," according to David Corliss, Lawrence assistant city manager. (You may be interested to read the entire Pitch article at It includes a great photo of Toss and me herding sheep, with the Torii and Willow Row in the background.)

When I asked the same question this time--"Will I be forcibly annexed if this development is approved?"--the Planning staff person I spoke with assured me that the city's policy is NOT to forcibly annex "islands" of county ground, as long as the property owners do not want city services. As reassurance, she showed me maps of several small "pockets" of county land virtually surrounded by city. (I will try to get this in writing, confirmed by the city manager.)

This change in attitude/policy may seem small, but to me it is HUGE. If true, if I can get that in writing, then I will feel as if I have substantially succeeded in one of my ultimate goals for the farm: that it remain in perpetuity a farm, with its human occupants having the right to use it as such to the fullest extent they wish.

And if true, this is a demonstration that change DOES happen, though at a glacial pace. The battleship IS turning around, as fast as it can, even though that is very, very slow. An affirmation of hope for win-win solutions, a happy outcome to this whole process. An affirmation that if we can be clear about what we want, and be patient, eventually common sense will prevail.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Anarchy in the Henhouse

I have surrendered to the "powers that be" regarding the main chicken coop, which houses the older hens, the ducks and the geese.

The one with the black snakes and coyote.

I supply food and water, and look on with curiousity and some odd blend of skepticism and trepidation. It's all out of my control.

The grey goose is sitting on eggs, 7 last time I checked. One night I found her off the nest, and a black snake was trying to get its mouth around a goose egg. I went and got leather gloves, and removed the blacksnake from the egg and carried it to the galvanized shed, all the way admonishing it to leave the nest eggs alone. The sight of it trying to swallow an entire goose egg was really quite ludicrous. Talk about optimism!

Both of the little female Muscovy ducks are sitting on nests. Usually there is a hen sharing each nest...they have each picked out a spot on the floor by the south wall. Now and then I try to pick up a duck and peek, but they hiss and strike so mostly I leave them alone. They are sitting on a random mix of chicken and duck eggs. The drakes are both non-Muscovy. It seems like I've heard that they don't interbreed, so I'm not sure if anything will hatch. Likewise, I'm not sure how old the male goose is. They are usually not fertile their first year (or was that the females?) But the sitting birds will not be convinced to do otherwise, so I just let them sit.

The snakes are robbing the duck/hen nests, of course. One afternoon I went out to check something, and a black snake was trying to get at the nest by the door. The valiant little duck was viciously stabbing the snake with her leathery bill, much to the consternation of the snake whose body is bigger around than the duck's head. The snake decided to try another path...straight towards my feet, about a foot away. I stood very still for a few moments, trying to decide what I would do it it started to climb my leg. On the one hand, that seems like a little too much invasion of my personal space, no matter how much I appreciate snakes. On the other hand, it would be interesting to feel what it's like to have that large a snake climb up a leg.

All in all, I think my knee would have been the utmost limit. But the snake curved around the wall instead of continuing its trajectory towards me, looking to find a way under to get at the nest from a protected side. Finding none, he doubled back and tried to go far enough around to escape the duck's relentless attack. Eventually the snake gave up and went off.

I am thinking more and more seriously about getting a cell phone that takes photos, for moments like that. They are so expensive...but the digital camera is bulky, and I rarely just carry it around all the time.

The other day I found the gate slightly ajar, and thought the coyote had grown an opposable thumb. What next? But when I searched the house for signs of a missing chicken, all I found amiss was that the feed pans were totally empty and tossed around. That didn't look like the work of the coyote. Then Eider, one of the "yard sheep", said "Baaaa"and stuck her nose in the gate, looking for seconds. No vegetarian coyote, after all! There is an extra latch on the gate now, since too much grain of any kind can hurt or kill a sheep by upsetting the intestinal balance of microbes, pH, etc.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Free-range Worms

At the Growing Grower's workshop this evening, we watched a short video on TerraCycle, a company which is mass producing "worm poop" from municipal garbage in a huge greenhouse-like structure full of conveyor belts and mechanical systems.

The worms are growing in stacked trays. They have everything they need: a perfect environment, perfectly balanced food. They make lots of poop and multiply at an incredible rate. The implication was that this is a wonderful, innovative"green" company producing a "green" product (it's packaged in reused pop bottles). The products are (fanfare here) marketed through WalMart, Home Depot, etc.

Then the video showed a clip of cattle in a feedlot, and talked about how awful it is to raise cattle like that.

But TerraCycle is raising worms like that. Worms that never taste real rainwater, never experience the daily and seasonal temperature shifts, never consort with all the other denizens of a natural environment, never have the excitement of a robin's footsteps in their life. Worms that are taken from their cookie-cutter homes periodically and run through a huge tumbling machine to separate them from their poop.

This is "organic"? I'm appalled. It doesn't even seem humane to me! If that's organic, I'm glad I'm NOT organic. (I guess I must be "post-organic" or something like that.)

The video gives me a new understanding of my farm, though. I guess I'm raising free-range worms at Pinwheel Farm. Locally-grown chemical-free free range worms, at that.

The first year I gardened on the farm ground, I rarely saw a worm in all my digging (I used to do a lot of digging). What worms I did see were the ones I call "green curlies", which I'd previously only seen associated with anaerobic soils along creek banks. The longer the land has been free of constant plowing/tilling, chemical fertilizers, and herbicides, the more worms I see. There are at least three distinct species now, including some of the largest and strongest nightcrawlers I've ever seen.

I don't get too sentimental when I accidentally injure a worm with a gardening tool, but I do think about them as I work and use tools and methods that are good for the worms. I appreciate the work they do, not only decomposing things into poop, but also mixing the soil while keeping it aerated and well-drained. I try to leave them alone to do their work as much as possible.

Why, you could even say I'm raising wild worms!

Good Enough for Who It's For

Sunday, which officially ended a couple hours ago but is still going for me, was the day to tackle plumbing. Don't ask me why, it just was.

I had determined soon after returning to the farmhouse in Nov. that I wanted to replace the kitchen faucet as part of the cleaning, redecorating and renovations. Now, don't get the idea that a lot of money was ever intended to be involved in this process. Mostly the goal was patching minor sheetrock flaws, painting, putting up new towel bars...little stuff, with mostly scournged/secondhand/sale materials and a reasonable amount of elbow grease. After decades of watching people build/install/fix things, I've learned that a lot of things don't require a professional, just the right tools and a lot of patience. That includes fixing a lot of minor plumbing annoyances.

The gasket where the faucet joined the sink had disintegrated, and water leaked through if it were splashed on the back rim of the sink, keeping the area under the sink perpetually slightly damp with the threat of dryrot. Replacing the gasket (which I could do with a piece of old inner tube and a pair of scissors) would involve exactly the same dismantling/remantling as installing a new faucet, so the new faucet seemed an easy improvement. I wanted one with the sprayer integrated in the faucet itself.

But, I choked when I realized the faucet I liked was $170. I dealt with the old one a while longer while I got used to the idea of spending that much.

I mentioned my plans to a friend, who said another friend had just removed one from her kitchen during remodelling. She passed on my contact info, but I never heard anything. So eventually I just went to the hardware store and wrote a big check. Then it took a while to find the right day to install it (all livestock watered, all dishes done, showers taken, etc. in case disaster ensued).

The day I was planning to install the new one, the friend called and asked if I wanted the used one! I said sure, thinking I'd give it a try and if it worked I could return the new one, if not I wasn't really out anything. She also threw in a coil of 1/4" copper pipe that had been hooked to an icemaker.

The faucet was gorgeous--exactly what I wanted, beyond my wildest dreams. I tested it at a friend's suggestion (good suggestion!) and it didn't leak. And the copper pipe was the right length to run unsoftened water to the kitchen, something I've wanted to do ever since the Reverse Osmosis system broke down a few years ago. The well water here tastes fine, but is slightly hard and has some iron--great natural mineral water, but lousy for laundry or anything involving homemade soap. The cold water in the bathtub is the only unsoftened water in the house, but there's a line running out to the farm which isn't softened.

Several trips to the hardware store later, the faucet is installed and functioning well! And the drinking water tap in the kitchen now supplies fresh well water!

Instead of the complexities of cutting into the water line to the farm to connect the unsoftened water, I used a self-tapping kit designed for icemakers. Much easier than cutting the line and "sweating" (soldering) in a "t" fitting, esp. since the farm waterline runs cheek-and-jowl with the softened waterline, and the unsoftened waterline is in the back, up against the joists, near the wall. It was a bit awkward, but would have been really hard to get to for soldering.

Perfect? No, not yet. One compression fitting leaks, probably because I didn't think to re-trim the ends of the icemaker tubing and use new brass ferules with the compression nuts. But, how important is it, really? I called a friend who is a very skilled & practiced amature plumber, as well as a great brainstormer and cheerleader. This is the man I called, more than 25 years ago, to come witness my turning the ignition in my car the first time after I removed, rebuilt and reinstalled the carboretor all on my own, not having been told it was "really hard." Of course the car worked fine, because I'd followed all the instructions VERY carefully, but I was so afraid that it would blow up when I tried to start it, I couldn't do it alone! A true friend--if he laughed at my irrational fear, he didn't let on!

Anyhow, True Friend and I discussed the causes of the drip...nothing I have parts/tools on hand for at this hour. Oh, well. I timed the drip (2.2 per minute), had the kitchen faucet drip into a teaspoon (25 drops per 5 ml), and calculated the appoximate volume of the leak: less than a liter a day, if I did it right. In reality, I have poorly adjusted water hydrants on the farm that leak that much or more. And I "waste" that much water many times over by small acts of carelessness or inattention, every day.

In time, the minerals in the water will likely plug the drip anyhow. The drip is in the basement, landing only on a concrete floor, and there is a dehumidifier to take the water out of the air as it evaporates.

That was my church-going today: praying and talking to God while I calmly and patiently and diligently worked on the plumbing. What better congregation than the sheep in the back yard when I trot out to the shed to look for a tool? What better hymns than the cardinals in the trees, and the roosters crowing in unison? What better sermon than the great personal stories from the excellent clerk at the hardware store, who is awaiting the birth of his first grandchild?

Good enough for me: A high-quality, well-designed faucet but not a new one; drinking water at the little spigot but it isn't RO. The church of the hardware store.

I don't need the best, most perfect, most expensive to be happy. Just enough, just GOOD enough.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Action Alert!

My then-fiance, now ex-husband and I bought the house at the farm, sitting on a little over an acre of land shared by another house, when I moved to Lawrence in 1994. A year and a half later, in November of 1995, we bought the 10 acres of farmland behind the house. It wasn't exactly in our plans, but either we bought it, or it would be sold to a developer who would put a warehouse on it, the driveway running right along side our house across our land.

The 10 acres, like most the land around it, was zoned for industrial use, although there was no industry in the neighborhood--just agriculture. We went through a lengthy process to have it rezoned "Agricutural" to send a clear message to the community what our plans for the land were.

We bought the land knowing that someday the question of annexation against our will would come up. Having bought the land to preserve it from development, I vowed to defend it to the best of my abilities should this issue arise. To preserve the land's right to be a farm. To keep it free to grow things, including livestock. To prevent it from being paved. To keep it free of the tyranny of the "no weeds over 12 inches" and other restrictive city regulations.

I've watched many development situations in the neighborhood, and had input wherever possible. I've successfully challenged illegal floodplain filling, and insisted that a stormwater retention pond be enlarged to prevent increased stormwater from a small housing development from flooding my pasture.

These have been the little practice sessions for the big one.

Here comes a big one.

A large landowner to the north is proposing a 900 A industrial/retail development north of me.

The Downtown Lawrence Farmers Market newsletter included this Action Alert:

"Educational Meeting on Proposed Business Park

There will be an educational meeting on Wednesday, July 11, at 7 p.m. at Grant School regarding the proposed development of 900 acres of farm land into industrial use -the Pine Family Farm, 300 acres of K.U. Endowment Land which is currently farmed, and about 20 home owners' properties. A representative of the city planning department will be present to teach us about the development process--and what, if any, recourse we have to step into the process.Here are links to information on the proposed development: with information from Roger Pine and the developer info on Lawrence Municipal Airport's concerns

Pinwheel Farm is the lowest area along the Maple Grove Tributary that drains much of the area proposed to be developed. Additional runoff from impermeable surfaces anywhere north of the farm will increase the likelihood of flooding. Some may say, "It's just pasture". But if the land is wetter longer, a certain variety of snail may start to live there. And that snail is a host to an internal parasite, a liver fluke, that is difficult to treat even with chemical wormers, and can kill sheep.

But a more serious concern is the likelihood of forcible annexation, since Pinwheel Farm lies between the current city limits and the proposed development. Annexation under current city codes would have dire effects on Pinwheel Farm's ability to BE a farm, on my ability to operate the farm as a business, on my ability to pass the farm on to future generations as a working farm, on my ability to get financing for improvements to my farm business. It would prevent me from having my own drinking water well and septic system, and force me to pay exhorbitant fees for connecting to and using city services that could then be shut off (and my house condemned) in order to punish me for infractions of city regulations designed to micromanage my lifestyle. Regulations that I never had a chance to vote on because I didn't live in city limits when they were put in place.

But it's about a lot more than just "my" farm or my personal lifestyle. It's about food security for the City of Lawrence. Many of those 900 acres are currently producing food or fuel (i.e. corn). It is some of the best agricultural land in the WORLD. As I have proven on my land, it is land that can grow food without expensive fossil-fuel-powered equipment and infrastructure. Once it is paved, it would be very hard to reclaim for agriculture. As gas prices rise, more food needs to be produced locally. "Peak oil" is looming in our near future. We need to keep our options open for local production.

Why is Pinwheel Farm important to people who don't live here? Because Pinwheel Farm has been exploring ways of producing food without purchased chemicals, fossil fuel tillage, or irrigation. In other words, ways of producing food that aren't dependent on the current infrastructure. Ways of producing food no matter what happens. Pinwheel Farm is about teaching those skills to others, to encourage local sustainable food production. Pinwheel Farm is especially valuable because it is accessible from the City of Lawrence without use of private automobiles--as gas prices increase, people can walk, bike, or take the city transit but to get their locally grown food here, and to learn how to grow their own.

I implore anyone who cares about sustainability in general, and about Pinwheel Farm's future, to get involved NOW. Attend the meeting if you can. Get informed. Speak out. Call City and County Commissioners. Write letters to the editor. Get your friends to do the same. Keep the farm, and the people working to preserve it, in your thoughts and prayers. Every bit counts.

And I'll keep you posted.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Teaming Up

If yesterday I felt like I actually accomplished very little, today was the opposite. Synergy from several sources made it a banner day.

A friend came fairly early in the day, for "farmercize", and started hacking down towering weeds with her machete. That's a tool I don't own and have never really developed a fondness for, though I have a great appreciation for it in someone else's responsible hands.

Under certain areas of weeds were piles of junk or unused-but-still-important items, or tomato cages which fit in either category according to individual condition. I set to MAKING DECISIONS about each item as quickly as she could liberate them. The result was a truck full of scrap metal.

Encouraged by the more than $4 cash in hand from the metal recyclers, when my apprentices came in the afternoon we set to sorting another pile of unused cages, yielding another small ($2) load of scrap. I know, small change, but that kind of instant gratification is hard to come by in farming! To do this for once and for all, we started by laying down used metal roofing on the area where I've had tarps to try to smother out bindweed. Bindweed was growing through the holes in the tarps, and the rumpled surface was catching water and breeding mosquitos. Bindweed may grow through the holes in the used metal, but the flame weeder should be able to reach through the cages and burn it back.

Moving those cages allowed us to put the tarps down on another area, to kill out some fescue. Then we enclosed the weedy former cage area, two unplanted and very weedy beds in the potato block, and another large fallow area in electronet fencing and turn in the sheep. Wow, what a difference in just a couple hours! We'll adjust the fence in a couple days to allow us to plant the potato beds, while leaving the sheep to maintain the fallow areas until we're ready to mulch and plant them.

I'm looking at several other parts of the garden that are essentially fallow, that I could turn the sheep in on.

Finally, I decided to load one last (for today) item on the truck for recycling--a huge steel cabinet that was given to me years ago, that is too tall (over 8') for any space where I might have used it, and constructed in such a manner that it isn't rodent-proof. It's extremely heavy, and has just been an eyesore for a long time, lying on its back along a fence.

When I tried to lift one end, it didn't budge. I realized dirt had risen up around it, and was sort of sucking it down. I hitched a tow strap to it and to the truck, and drove forward a few feet to break the ground's grip on the cabinet. This also fortuitously turned it on its side, allowing us to clean the caked dirt off the back. That made it significantly lighter, something I felt we could tackle (I weigh less than 130 lbs. these days, and MR is smaller than me).

No heroics here, just a few quick, carefully planned increments that got the cabinet in place on the truck easily. First we placed a heavy steel pipe sawhorse at the end of the cabinet, tilted so that the near legs were a few inches down the cabinet sides, with the top butted up against the cabinet. When we lifted the cabinet to the sawhorse height, the horse was easily tipped upright so that it was under the cabinet. After a rest, we hoisted the cabinet and slid the sawhorse further under it, raising the end further in the air. This let me back the open tailgate of the truck under it...and by continuing to back a little ways, the tailgate lifted the cabinet even higher, thus more of the cabineet was over the tailgate. Now it was fairly easy for MR and I to lift the other end from the ground to truck level, and slide the cabinet fully into the truck.

Who was it said they could move the earth if only they had a properly placed fulcrum and a lever long enough? Anyhow, I maintain that I can move almost anything if the earth is helping me carry it!

Once again, I am moved to deep appreciation of the education my parents, especially my father, gave me in "how things work". I've never taken a formal physics class, but absorbed enough understanding of the principles from dinner-table talk (Dad taught freshman physics for many years) to be able to put the forces of the universe to work on MY side of any given project.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Time Zones

One of the greatest challenges of my life with the farm is living and working in different time zones.

There are two entirely different systems of time at work on my life: clock time, and God's time. Time as a measurable, limited, linear commodity, and time as the infinite, omnipresent embrace that contains all that has been, is, and will be--"the fullness of time." That fullness is even vast enough to include "could have been" and "could be", as well--the realities that exist only in ous hearts and dreams.

There is a kind of clock time that is measured by human-built mechanical apparatus, and there is another clockish kind of time that is measured by non-human standards--natural time.

One of the roles in my life now is heavily focussed on "bus time"--a type of clock time where seconds are important, but may drag on apparently endlessly while waiting for a traffic light to change. I have a special watch that I use when I'm an on-duty city transit bus driver. It's black and broad, digital, engineered to receive satellite signals in the wee hours of the morning that set it to the precise official time for my globe-based time zone (Central). It displays the seconds in exact harmony with the official company clock (also satellite) at Dispatch, the clock by which our performance is measured. When someone asks the time, my answer is something like "11:22 and 43...44...45 seconds."

When I go off duty, I switch to a different watch: a smallish, almost feminine gold-tone Timex analog watch, classically simple in its style. While it keeps excellent time--I've not had to reset it other than for geographical time zone changes while travelling, or daylight savings time--it encourages the reader to round things off. It has a sweep second hand, so I can time eggs or take my pulse--but that hand reads as a motion, a gesture--rather than a sequence of numbers. When someone asks the time, my answer is something like "11:30ish". Close enough for appointments in town, connecting with friends, etc.

A few months ago, I went through the semi-annual frustration of trying to explain daylight savings time to the sheep, chickens and dogs. When I'm not working off the farm, I feed them at the same sun time they are used to, instead of by clock time. When I'm working off the farm, I have to shift my chores relative to Daylight Savings Time, and the sheep wonder why they are being feed later than usual. It's very hard to explain the concept of clocks to sheep.

A different sort of daylight savings time is going into effect now--a natural one. I am shifting into summer mode.

Though I'm naturally a night owl (as you can tell by the times on my blog entries), this is the time of year I begin to look at the hours of 5, 6, and 7 a.m. as someplace perhaps more desireable than I'd previously credited. It is cool then; it is quiet except the birds; the grass is heavy with dew. It is a good time, an even magical time to be out and about with the animals. And the afternoon begins to look like a good time for reading, napping, or otherwise just somehow getting from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. when it begins to cool down. The cool evening and morning hours become more precious as the weather becomes hotter.

But my bus job interferes with that natural shift to siesta schedule. Feeling nappish right after starting my shift is not a good thing. When I get home, I tend to get going on projects and work far into the night, then miss the lovely morning hours when there is both daylight and coolness.

The change to siesta schedule means a mental adjustment in accounting for my use of time on the farm. Each day is like two days: the early work day, and the late work day. In between, a nothing time, "down time" I call it. Together the two days add up to well more than 8 hours on-duty at the farm, but each one is short enough it's easy to feel that I "didn't get anything done." Today was one of those.

This morning, awakened by Luna's peculiar "coyote in the chicken pen" bark, I watched the coyote leap the 6' chain link panels that have up until now been protecting the chickens. In his haste to depart the crime scene when caught red-handed, he wasn't sure he could make the leap with the chicken in his mouth. Not one but two dead chickens lay in the yard, after weeks with no losses. A formidable foe, indeed--and a stunningly gorgeous animal, seen silhouetted on the dew-spangled emerald green of the neighbor's close-cropped lawn.

Then my friend who is buying more of my sheep ( came to help me hitch the trailer and load the sheep she has chosen. How much faster this operation is with someone directing the driver! The sheep were easily sorted, and loaded nicely. They seemed to settle right in at their new farm. A luscious snack of zuccini bread, home to unhitch the trailer, a phone call to pick up a cast-off kitchen sink from another acquaintance, a trip to the farm supply store since I realized many stores were open even though it's a holiday.

Of course, none of that (except moving the sheep, in a vague sort of way) was on the "to-do"list. As I plopped in front of the fan in a comfy chair with a good book (Monty Roberts, The Man Who Listens to Horses, which is surprisingly relevent to sheep), it didn't seem like a very productive day.

Then the tornado sirens went off. I dragged the whole intimidating pile of tangled polytwine electric fence conductor down to the basement and devoted a couple hours to untangling and winding. The donor of the sink had thrown in a coil of 1/4" copper water pipe from an icemaker installation, and I decided to try snaking it alongside the 20' of water pipe that runs through the ceiling to supply the kitchen. It fit perfectly, and I got it to come out the other end! Soon the drinking water tap in the kitchen will dispense unsoftened, natural well water for drinking.

Luna went out with me to check the condition of the grazing in the sheep's current paddocks. This was excellent training for her, to just have a nice relaxed walk with sheep while firecrackers punctuating every step at random distances and directions. When we got back to the barn and grained the "special care" ewes (two with triplets, a couple geriatric ones, one that seems extra susceptible to worms), Luna did an excellent job of working them in the unnervingly noisy conditions.

The 4th of July is even harder to explain to the animals than Daylight Savings Time.

Finally I went out and rigged an electric wire (actually rope) around the top of the chicken coop, and checked the voltage on the fence. 3500 is a little iffy, but hopefully will dampen the coyote's appetite.

The whole time I was doing chores and working on the chicken coop, the neighbors were discharging an unbelievable stock of fireworks less than 100' from me. It was quite weird--an act of faith to continue with my essential work, knowing that I was not being physically threatened by the booming, screaming, sparking displays above my head. I can't complain. The same regulations that give me the right to keep sheep are the ones that given them the right to terrify my livestock with their fireworks and, in another season, guns.They have to listen to my dogs and roosters and the complaints of a ewe whose children left the farm today.

Experiencing the fireworks that close at hand made me wonder how it might feel to be a farmer in a different time zone tonight, one on the other side of the globe, where the gunpowder exploding in the night is not for the amusement of the children, where the mourning ewe is standing over a lamb killed by stray gunfire.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Counting the Days

"Hate the sin and not the sinner," they say. I think it's in the Bible somewhere.

So perhaps, even in this day and age, it's safe to say in public, on cyberspace, that I HATE the 4th of July/Independence Day--without being accused of treason or terrorism.

Well, not exactly "hate." "Dread" describes the last few days of June. "Loathe" and "resent" come into play beginning the 1st of July. In Kansas, fireworks can legally be set off from the 1st through the 4th, I believe--or at least those setting them off believe this is the case.

The situation has only gotten worse since the City of Lawrence banned fireworks within city limits. Since I live in the county, right on the city limits, my neighbors' friends all convene at my neighbors' homes to discharge their noisy devices. Very convenient for all--close to town, not much driving, my neighbors get the "fun" without the expense.

But on my side of the fence, it is not a fun time.

To people comfortably ensconced in air conditioned homes, watching the news or violent movies on TV, the pops and booms are background noise at worst. But I work outside, my entire being attuned to the sounds of my environment. The random, sudden explosions--something I'm not desensitized to from watching TV or movies--startle me every time, especially the larger ones. Adrenaline surges through my body each time from the triggering of the involuntary flight-or-fight response.

Fight dominates, since I have work to be done. This is the root, perhaps, of my hatred of this occasion. I become increasingly irritable with myself, the dogs, the piece of baling twine that catches on something, the screw that won't come loose. I don't like the way I feel; my amorphous anger borders on irrational at moments. It IS irrational--it's chemically induced. I am irrational. But there's nothing I can do about it, except damage control: trying not to take it out on people, animals or objects in destructive ways. I gravitate towards big, physical, "destructive" activities like cleaning up debris or mowing the lawn (extra good because the ear protectors and "happy purr" of the engine mute the suddenness of the explosions).

Toss is terrified of thunder, and extremely gun-shy, Luna only to a slightly lesser extent. These are very common traits in Border Collies. My dogs are actually better than some; though cowering and not terribly "with it", they love herding sheep enought that they WILL work in a thunderstorm if required to. Otherwise, Toss is plastered to the floor under the basement stairs, and won't respond to any summons unless she intuits that working sheep will be involved. Luna is a little more casual about sudden sharp noises.

Fireworks are even worse than thunder. To the dogs, there is no rhyme nor reason to them, unlike the thunderstorm which they can sense coming for hours before I'm aware of its presence. I don't know how to tell them that it's the first of July, and it will all be over in 4 days, and no one (at least on the farm) will be hurt. After all, I can't even convince my own body of that, not enough to halt the secretions of adrenaline.

Luna's preference is to plaster herself to ME. It's like the thunder-and-lightening equation. After each "boom" I subconsciously count the seconds before Luna appears at my ankles, panting heavily, looking frightened and frantic. Getting underfoot, tripping me, disturbing the work I'm doing. Adrenaline surging through my own body, triggering instinctive reactions, I am ill-equipped to be the comforting haven she expects. I try to respond evenly, but as both Luna's and my own stress levels rachet up with each volley of firecrackers, a vicious cycle ensues: the more she clings, the more aggravated I become by the clinging; the more tense I get, the more clingy she gets as she begins to respond to my stress as well as to the fireworks. Eventually I have to shut her in her kennel, to protect her from my irrational wrath at her slightest infraction.

The sheep are affected, too. It's not as plain as with the dogs, but they become jumpy and nervous. It's not a good time to do any significant work with them.

In past summers when I've milked my sheep, it's been quite graphic: A sharp dip in production beginning July 1, and leveling out after the 4th. With hot weather generally setting in this time of year, production never rebounded to pre-July levels. It's just a "done deal" that early July is the time I shift to a once-a-day milking schedule.

My preferred way of spending the 4th is to visit my Old Order River Brethren friends in Jamesport, Missouri. The "plain" people--Amish, OORB, German Baptist, Mennonite--who make up a large part of the rural population in the Jamesport area do not observe holidays. The 4th is special only because those who work at jobs outside their spiritual communities have the day off to spend at home. Thus visits from friends and faraway family are more likely. I fall easily into the pleasant routine of their days, fixing meals, cleaning up after meals, chatting about recipes and sheep (they raise Gulf Coast Natives, a rare American breed) and gardening. No crowds at the lake, no sunburn, no whining, no fireworks.

I am always welcome there. It is quiet when night falls and the children are in bed. The drone of early cicadas, perhaps; a chirping of crickets; a restless rooster; one of the Great Pyranees sheep dogs (huge deep-voiced guardians, not herders like my Border Collies) announcing their territory to all coyotes. You can hear fireworks very faintly, very far away, as if in another world. But I can't take the dogs, not just because of that family's dogs, but because Toss likes travelling only slightly more than she likes fireworks. It doesn't seem quite fair to leave the dogs home alone in such a stressful time, but sometimes I rationalize that it's better than staying home with them, and being grouchy and irritable.

This year, unless fencing and weeding miracles occur in the next few days, I'll stay home. Perhaps it will be a good day to skirt February's fleeces in the basement, where it's cool and remote from the upper regions?

"This too shall pass." We'll endure the "outside world's" insanity for a few more days, muddle through somehow. Then we'll celebrate July 5th--freedom from gunpowder!

Sunday, July 1, 2007

O Canada!

A special entry for all my Canadian friends today, and a nice perspective shift for my US friends:

Happy Canada Day!

When I was growing up, we often vacationed in Canada (Beausoleil Island, Georgian Bay National Park, Ontario). We quickly learned to avoid scheduling our stay for early July. "Victoria Day" (as it was then called) and Independence Day filled the park with a sudden influx of ruder-than-average campers. Noisy kids, noisy motor boats, noisy fireworks, noisy late-night parties. Not the peaceful wilderness experience that we were seeking.

Two summers ago, I travelled from Winnipeg, MB (after a 5-month stay) to Sorrento, BC, just at the end of June to volunteer at Sorrento Centre, an Anglican conference and retreat centre ( I arrived to find the staff preoccupied with planning for the local Canada Day parade. I'd been given a few days to adjust to my new surroundings before starting my 40-hour-per-week volunteer position, so I was sort of wandering around taking it all in, feeling a little homesick and disoriented. I'm not used to having nothing to do.

"Do you have a driver's license?" someone asked. "A US one," I replied. "I guess it's good in Canada--driving was part of my formal volunteer position in Winnipeg."

"Good!" came the response. "You can drive the van in the parade! I'm glad we got THAT problem solved!"

The camp had just a skeleton crew that day, and mostly it was the youth staff that was taking part in the parade. People old enough to drive were either performing essential tasks like cooking and housekeeping, or taking a holiday to visit friends or family.

So suddenly, for the first time in my life, I was IN a parade! Not just any parade, but a Canada Day parade! I was haunted by feeling there was something sort of ironic and perhaps not quite...well, RIGHT about an American driving in a Canada Day parade. Some vague sense of disloyalty to my country.

But my country and I have a sort of awkward relationship anyhow. I would have felt equally awkward participating in an Independence Day parade--perhaps more so. I tend to think of the lives lost in the struggle for that independence. Was it worth it to their loved ones at the time? Canada achieved pretty much the same goal with much less bloodshed, without a legacy of hatred and rebellion. Maybe Canada Day is a good day to reflect on the cultural differences trickling down from the manner of our separation from British rule, our legacy of violence vs. Canada's legacy of working things out peacefully.

And I realized as I drove the van that this invitation, though coming from a real need of the Centre to have someone drive, was also a wonderful welcome to a wonderful community in a wonderful country.

One can't help hearing negative things about the US government while travelling in other countries. Sometimes the negativity is directed at the innocent traveller; sometimes, we're just put on the spot and asked to explain our government's policies and decisions. But driving the van in the parade swept all such alienating and divisive talk aside. For me, a bit weary and bewildered in a foreign country thousands of miles from home, it was an act of forgivenness for being American. My country of origin didn't matter to the youth staff planning the parade entry; I was on their team, one of them.

The parade was a classic small-town parade, with everyone in the area involved somehow. The fire trucks, the horse-drawn wagon, the day care centres, local businesses, the Red Hat Society--everyone was there. Our youth staff marched in front of the van, singing silly chants that they would be teaching the children during day camp.

Oh, all you Canadian friends, I so deeply appreciate your hospitality to me when I was a traveller alone in your amazing, vast, beautiful wilderness! I miss you, and look forward to visiting again someday, hopefully many times! Have a wonderful special day!

All you US friends, take a moment today to remember that we are just one of many nations in the world, and everyone has special feelings for their homeland, if not for their government of the moment!

Everyone, look at a photo of the earth from space, and remember that the political lines we draw are figments of our imagination from the point of view of the earth, the animals that scurry back and forth in the wilderness without knowing they are international travellers, the children who understand only the shared language of a smile, an offer of half a cookie.