Wednesday, October 31, 2007

In Passing Time

As vague as fog that veils/unveils
A once-familar place, we change.
As shadows cool an autumn trail,
As branches warm and stretch in rain,
As frost ferns bloom and fade on glass,
As fields grow tall with crops and weeds,
Like joys and failures that we cast
On summer winds like chaff and seeds--
We harvest all the good we've known,
What our experience has shown,
How through adversity we've grown,
Our seasonal moves
In time wear smooth
Our rolling stones.....*

A few months ago, God sent a troupe of angels to the farm to make things right again after the destruction wrought by my sabbatical tenants. They rebuilt the derelict barn, cut and split firewood, mowed the lawn, planted the fall garden, moved the chickens to a new pen, washed the windows, scrubbed the walls, sewed lovely clothespin bags and potholders, suggested a dozen little improvements around the house and farm, and a thousand other little and not-so-little helps. They delighted my housemate Emily and I with footrubs, fresh bouquets, delicious meals, cheerful encouragement, sweet hymns, scripture reading, Christian fellowship.

A friend and I made a quick overnight trip to Manhattan (Kansas, about 90 miles west of Lawrence) to visit my parents last weekend. I returned home Monday afternoon to find that the angels had packed up and left.

Hindsight's always 20-20: Ezra's complete avoidance of me for the past couple weeks, the others showing little enthusiasm for plans or little improvements to our living arrangements this past week, a flurry of washing sleeping bags and tents, eager anticipation of one of their fellows coming to visit, a thinning out of their possessions....clearly this had been planned for some time. They chose to leave like thieves in the night, behind my back, no goodbyes. It hurt.

The notes left all around the house gave clues to a variety of issues that evidently had troubled them, issues they never discussed with me, issues where I feel sure we could have reached some understanding. I was too insistent on things being done my way (yes, because they had always made clear that they were unable to make a committment to stay any definite length of time, and critical systems like firewood needed to be kept in the order I'm accustomed to in case I were suddenly alone again). I was too "fastidious" (yes, I insist on the bleaching of buckets to be used for harvesting salad greens, not wishing to make my customers sick nor to open myself to a lawsuit). They felt I should have provided more food (they didn't eat much of the lamb and fresh vegetables I gave them, so I didn't offer them more). I expected too much work of them (the original agreement was 2 hours work per person, per day, in exchange for shelter, use of tools and materials, sanitary facilities, laundry facilities, and some; the farms and retreat centers where I volunteered during my travels expected 6-8 hours a day for room and board).

And the clincher, the thing they absolutely couldn't live with: They had reason to believe I'm involved in "promoting gay rights."

The issue of homosexuality had simply never come up in our conversations. I felt reasonably sure that they didn't "believe" in homosexuality, just as Ruhamah told me she didn't "believe" in women wearing pants (she therefore wouldn't remove my laundry from the washing machine or clothesline, for fear of touching a woman's pants), just as they didn't "believe" in remarriage after divorce. I figured that if the topic of homosexuality came up in their ministry work away from the farm, they were probably anti-gay to some extent or another. But, why should that matter within the household? They have their ministry, I've got mine. At the farm, our focus was on living together in Christian fellowship, sharing the work of daily living, encouraging one another in our faith journies. What we did away from the farm, I figured, was our own concern.

They knew from the beginning I've been married three times, but that didn't interfere with them accepting my hospitality gladly in their time of need. Why would they would respond differently to realizing that I've never been strictly heterosexual? It's just such a moot point these days...I've been entirely celibate for well more than 3 years. THE love of my life doesn't love me, but my love for my beloved continues undiminished whether it's returned or not. Unless a miracle occurs, I'll be celibate the rest of my life, not because some religious sect requires it, but because God seems to refuse to take away this deep, abiding, unrequited love that I offer to relinquish daily, and I can't imagine any other love eclipsing this one. So it's hard for me to see why my sexual orientation should have been any issue at all within our composite community of celibates. I wasn't looking for a "special relationship" with any of them, regardless of anyone's sex.

Yes, I do promote "gay rights." Just as I promote equal rights and individual freedom of choice on pretty much ALL issues (including my right to wear pants--to counterbalance Ruhamah's condemnation of my refusal to wear skirts, I've had to defend my right to wear pants without a men's-style fly, at my bus-driving job). That includes Ruhamah's right to not risk touching my pants--which I always respected even though I found it quirky, illogical, and not particularly scriptural. I'll let God be the judge of what's sinful and what isn't. And I'll let Him decide whether judging other people is more or less sinful than loving someone of the same sex. As I read it, the Bible's WAY more clear about judgment than about homosexuality.

In this odd transition time, there are moments when the house seems unbearably empty, the farm seems so oddly quiet. I put something down on the kitchen counter, and it is there the next day, untouched. I come home, and there is no tempting plate of food awaiting me. The floor wants sweeping for the first time in months. Toss and Ambrosius are puzzled by the vacancies, and demand extra attention from me. Far larger than the hurt stirred up by their resentful notes, their false accusations, their choice to leave without saying goodbye--is my sadness at their absence, and my gratitude for their presence here, even if it was far too brief to suit me.

So I roll my stone along, alone now...harvesting the rich goodness of our short, aborted friendships, reminiscing about the wonderful experiences we shared, suspecting that in God's time we will all find so many incredible ways that we've grown through all our experiences together.

It's a good time for such a transition, all in all...just at the shifting of the farm from summer to winter rhythms and routines. Everything was about to change, routines for the woodstove, the livestock feeding and watering, the storage of freezable things. In another season, I hope that some of these angels, or their fellows, will come this way again, like a migration.

And I have to wonder, with not a little trepidation...

...Nature abhors a what WILL God think of next? This visitation of angels will be hard to beat, but things have just kept getting better and better since I really and truly turned my will and my life over to Him a few years ago....

*Written as a poem, "In Passing Time" by Natalya Hall (now Lowther), ca. 1984. Later this became the first verse 1 of Natalya's song "In Passing Time", part of the repertoire of the Manhattan, Kansas, womyn's chorus Women of the Heartlands: Singing Our Lives.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Leftovers for lunch

We've been trying to trim as many trees as possible lately, while the leave on the trimmings are still green. The sheep love them, and will even strip off the bark and eat smaller twigs. The sheep also eat the fallen autumn leaves, but I suspect they aren't quite as nutritious as the fresh green ones. Still, it's entertaining to turn them into a fresh paddock and watch them criss-cross it like a competitive vacuum cleaning team, eagerly grabbing up every leaf they can see.

Favorites include elm, mulberry, and sugar maple. I also feed them black walnut in modest quantities when I can. It's an ingredient in some herbal anthelmintics (wormers), so I suspect they're self-medicating this way. Willow, which contains salicylic acid (similar to aspirin), is another favorite of theirs.

The joy they demonstrate when they see a fresh branch coming over the fence quickly erases any thoughts of scratched hand, sore arms, general weariness, etc. Farming with livestock makes even a thankless chore like trimming brush into an interactive, heart-warming activity. Someone always cares what I am doing. It is hard to hang around on the "pity pot" too long, thinking, "no one ever appreciates all the hard work I do". Every little thing matters to someone.

If I could just figure out a way to make the fencing and transportation simple and efficient, and deal with a few discouraging city ordinances, the sheep and me could start a lawn service, offering mwing, fertilizing, leaf disposal, happy hearts, and lamb chops. Yeah, in my vast and copious spare time....

Ingenious insect

Really, it makes me want to take up ceramics again.

I was fine-tuning the fancy "new" (courtesy of Habitat for Humanity's ReStore) entry door for the "retail area" in the garage. The door had originally had a deadbolt, but I didn't want to fuss with another house key. So I found a cover plate for the extraneous hole, part of an escalating effort to winterize the farm.

During the summer, we put a piece of tape across the inside of the lock hole to keep the bugs out. When I removed the tape, I discovered that one enterprising insect with an artistic flair had found the bolt tunnel to be a nice sheltered place for a nest.

It's not often that I find a potter's wasp nest on the farm, and they are always a source of pleasure when I do. It just seems so wonderful that a tiny insect would take so much trouble to make such an artistic vessel for its larva. In this case, not just the fact of the little vase-shaped clay pot, but the regular-but-random surface texture and the whole tableau seemed to transcend the usual whimsy of these little nests.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Goaled Rush

Today marks the one-week point in my three weeks off from the bus. Little by little, I'm ticking off some of the things on the list, and working hard not to add very many.

Last night was the first frost. I had gone out to the barn in the early evening, knowing the temperature was supposed to reach the lower 40's. I wanted to get plastic up on the unfinished door and gaps in the south wall, so that the barn will stay warm as the weather chills off. I'm hoping to plant fall greens in there soon.

It was a nice night, with about a 3/4 moon beaming in through the plastic roof. I puttered at a nice easy pace and got a lot of little details worked out. Somewhere along the way, one of the lights in the double halogen work light went out. Then later the other winked off, and I was left working by pure moonlight. How peaceful and beautiful! And so quiet....

I walked outside. Oddly quiet. Then I realized the crickets had stopped singing. And I realized that there was frost glinting on some ground cloth laying outside the barn.

THE NIGHT had arrived. Even though things were soaking wet from yet MORE rain (at least 7" in the last couple weeks), I knew they would freeze by the morning. The stars twinkled above me in the clear, dark depths of the universe that was waiting to absorb whatever meager heat it could from the earth.

I kicked into high gear. My first thought was for the basil. Even if it doesn't quite freeze, basil wimps out somewhere around 36-38 degrees. Looking around for something to cover it, I grabbed a couple rolls of lumber wrap we picked up out of the dumpster on a recent venture to the lumber yard. It's great stuff: strong, lightweight, and large. One piece covered half of a bed of basil. In the morning, the basil underneath was black wherever it had touched the lumber wrap, but the rest of each plant was ok. Oddly, the basil that didn't get covered at all looked ok, too. Go figure....

Next, the tomatoes. I started out with a bathroom break and fresh batteries in the headlamp. Emily smiled from her cozy chair in the living room, knitting serenely under a nice quilt. "First frost!" I announced. "I'm from Texas," she stated firmly. "Too cold."

I actually do like the crisp chilly weather of fall and winter, though I sympathize with my friends from California and Texas. I've learned how to dress really well for cold weather, and find it exhilerating. "It's actually really beautiful out," I said as I headed off towards the tomato jungle. The plants have really put on a growth spurt in the last month, and there are a lot of good-size green ones hiding under lush foliage.

I picked tomatoes--red, orange, yellow and green and everything in between--for about 2 hours, as fast as I could pick, never mind the vines. I filled almost 6 of my big bulb crates, probably close to 250 or 300 lbs. all told. Emily came out and helped for awhile, and confessed that it WAS really pretty--just too cold. Of course, she wasn't wearing Goretex from head to toe, which I was because I knew how soaking wet the vines were. I didn'tmind the wet, just dressed for it, because I knew it was serving a purpose.

By the time I got back to the house, my fingers were totally numb. The rest of me was comfortable. Wow did that hot shower at about 2 a.m. feel great!

Apparently all the water on the leaves worked its little miracle, because despite a lot of visible frost on things this morning, the tomato plants don't appear to have been damaged much. Water gives off heat as it changes from liquid to solid, and this heat can be enough to keep the plant tissue underneath the frost from freezing. Fractions of degrees make a real difference in the amount of damage to the plant. Thus water sprinklers are commonly used to protect against frost in high-value crops like citrus.

So maybe the tomatoes could have stayed on--maybe my dedicated rush to harvest them was "in vain". But there comes a time when it just needs to be OVER for the season--no more having that impending frost hanging over my head; just get it over with. I never really mourn the passing of the tomatoes. I'm usually tired of picking them by frost time. In fact, the annual frost night is often a welcome milestone in the gardening year.

Today, we rearranged the furniture in the barn--entirely dismantling the old system of pens and gates, and roughing in a new layout. Another rush to meet another goal...tomorrow morning a load of lambs goes to the meat processing plant. I was pleased to find that the new handling layout, building on memories of reading Temple Grandin's books, does encourage he sheep to move through more easily, even when full of scary shadows at night. It's also set up so that Toss can help to move the sheep into the chute, which she did very well. I ran the sheep through several times to get them all sorted out. Each time, she followed the last sheep into the chute, then sat there grinning at me--something she's never done with the former arrangement.

In a few hours, after a bit of sleep, I'll rush off on my next mission. Little by little things are taking shape. It's a good feeling. The visible progress motivates me to keep going, despite the scarcity of time for sleep.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

"Time is Money"

So, apples are oranges? Okra is pork? I don't get it.

As the daylight shortens each day, and we pass the "expected date of first frost" (calculated on pre-global-warming data, I suspect), a certain internal tension inevitably builds. It's a seasonal thing, familar, inescapable. Finally I decide to give way to the feeling, and to act on my stubborn belief that time is time, and money is money, and all the money in the world won't buy back an autumn day when the January winds are howling and the ground is frozen.

Today was my first day of a projected 3-week leave from my full-time, off-farm job (as distinct from my full-time-and-then-some on-farm job). Time to do all those outdoor jobs that need done "before winter", time to mend fences, time to get the resurrected barn furnished and functioning.

Yesterday, driving the bus, the weather was the best that fall can offer: flawless blue sky, balmy temperature, just a light bit of breeze, a gentler sun than August offers. The kind of day that brings back childhood memories of sailing through flocks of migrating gulls. I kept thinking, this is to give me good memories so I'll want to go back to driving after my leave.

Today, I think we got the leftovers from someone's hurricane. It poured all day, a total of 2 3/4 inches. Emily commented when she got home, "Good day to not drive the bus." After a pause, she said, "Bummer. You had all that outdoor work to do, and it rained."

Last night I put up a 22" x 36" dry-erase board on the kitchen wall, and started writing things down. Things that pretty much need done "before winter"--getting the woodpile ready (our main heat source), reseeding pasture, barn work, fences, garden stuff, marketing, building a privy, paperwork, meetings, crafting for holiday sales, stuff with the sheep, stuff with the chickens..... The sheet is so full I can hardly add anything. It's daunting. But it feels better now that it's out of my brain. I looked at it and thought, "No wonder I've been feeling tense and overwhelmed!"

I put a red "x" next to the most important things to try to get done this three weeks off. Still scary. I circled the things that need done first. Yikes!

I got up this morning and started doing stuff. There were plenty of indoor things on the list, like "washing" fat for soap and candles. Some of it had been rendered but not completely washed before I went to Canada in 2005, so there were some pretty scary biology/chemistry experiments. Sheep tallow really does make pretty good candles, and the fat from the pan that rusted out is an interesting orange color....

Working with the fat is a garage thing. "Clean and organize garage" was on the list, too. So I'd stir the fat, clean something, put something away, stir the fat, rearrange a bit, label a drawer, stir the fat, etc. I finally found the do-hicky that goes with the thing-a-ma-jig and put them together in the same place as the gizmo, so I'm ready to start--START!--that project now. OK, OK--progress, not perfection.

Since it seemed like a good day to cook things, I also put all three roosters in a canning kettle in the kitchen and simmered them all day with three onions, cut up, and about a 1/4 cup of chopped homegrown garlic. Boned them out this evening and there's enough meat for 6 meals for 6 people, plus a lot of stock. Everyone agreed the flavor was fabulous and asked about the seasoning...mostly, I don't think anyone had ever tasted a REAL chicken before, just the pale, pudgy store-bought things.

About mid-afternoon, I looked at the whiteboard, thinking I could cross something off...surely?...I've been in constant motion all day....? Hmmmmm. Not good. I decided to put dots next to the things I'd WORKED on, whether I ever got them "done" or not.

Three dots. THREE DOTS for a whole day's work!

I did get all the existing rendered fat washed, but there's still two huge bags of unrendered fat in the freezer.

"Fat" was just part of one line item on the whiteboard.

But "fat" is just "faith" that needs a couple more letters, isn't it? And somehow I DO have faith that I'll get done what needs to be done, in God's time not mine.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Butchering Roosters

If you are bothered by thinking about animals being killed by people for food, it might be a good idea for you to skip reading today's entry. Things not normally part of your everyday experience are described in some detail. I sit in judgment of no one who chooses to absent themselves from any part of this process, even just reading about it.

I will not write this with the whimsical, humorous voice I frequently use to make light of the challenges of farming. Death is death, a solemn passage, whether by my hand or not.

We butchered 3 roosters today.

I've done this many times, now; for the others present, it was their first time. I noted the tendency of more than one helper/bystander to make light of the occasion through quips and puns. This is a fairly common reaction of some people to things that are stressful or serious: to play the clown, to try to lighten things up. It's a reaction that I try to gently but consistently challenge, however: I will make firm statements to cut it short, at risk of hurting feelings if need be, though I try to be tactful in my admonishment.

I don't believe that death should be taken lightly, even if it's the death of a rooster whose ardent crowing disturbed our sleep on a regular basis. When the moment comes for me to put a knife to its throat, I want to do that with the somber realization that my own life could be cut from me just as quickly, just as apparently randomly as this seemed to the roosters (though we'd set the date weeks in advance). I certainly don't want to draw that knife with any feeling of malice or glee on my part. I think only someone who has actually drawn the killing knife can understand the full extent to which this is NOT an act of violence. In fact, it renews my commitment to living a life of nonviolence more than anything else I've ever done.

I meet the rooster more closely in its final moments than at any other time in its life. I hold its scaley feet, its sleek feathered body, its warty-wattled head in the process of hanging it for the kill. I feel its bodily warmth, its heartbeat, its breathing. This is a living thing, that I am about to kill for my own nourishment. The chicken will become part of me. We're in this together.

I kill them as kindly as I can, hanging them upside down in a sack with their heads out a hole in the bottom. This is done in an area out of view of the house, the neighbor's yard, the other chickens: other than the rooster, those witnessing this have freely consented to witness and participate it. The knives are as sharp as I can have them, for a quick, clean kill...better than ever, today, thanks to the generous help of a friend with excellent sharpening equipment and skills. The neck veins are quickly severed while I hold the bird's head gently, covering its eyes. It bleeds to death within moments, then the random contractions of muscles after death force the last blood out effectively without much mess as the sack restrains the wings and my hand on the head prevents it from flopping. Each time I think: May my own crossing from life to death be so merciful and fast.

I know from nicking myself how painless the cut of a sharp knife can be. When Marie nicks her thumb while skinning (an expedient alternative to dealing with the mess and stench of scalding and plucking, since these old birds are only going to be fit for soup, anyway), I send her to wash right away. She protests, "It's only a tiny nick, it's not even bleeding." "But it will," I speak from experience. Soon she says, "You're right." It turns out she has nearly skinned the back of a knuckle, without even feeling it. After more washing, a bandage, and a disposable glove, she returns to skinning the rooster.

Emily realizes with sudden amazement that a smell she's always associated with fish, from childhood fishing trips, is actually the fairly universal smell of guts. We are all in awe of the beauty of what we are seeing, recognizing that our own innards look a lot like this. The delicate membrane laced with fat deposits and veins that tether the intestines while allowing so much flexibility. The lustrous, iridescent sheen of ligaments merging into muscles. The bright pink buoyancy of the lungs. The plastic resilience and strength of the windpipe. They, and we, are wonderfully made.

After we completed the first rooster, two of the other participants wanted to try their hand at killing the other two roosters. I thought this would be a good chance to photograph the method that I use. The camera allowed the shot you see above, then inexplicably quit. I felt chastened by a God who is more powerful than all technology: This moment of dying is not a public spectacle, but a deep form of intimacy. It was not to be profaned by separating myself from it through the camera's lense, not to be displayed on the Web.

By my longstanding tradition, our evening meal did not feature chicken. By the time we have finished, we don't feel like seeing them again for a little while. Besides, these roosters will benefit from a few days' aging in the fridge, and lo-o-o-o-ng slow cooking. But whether they end up as pot pie or soup, there will be a spiritual dimension to the nourishment we receive from them that can't be bought in any store.

It was not that long ago in our culture, when you compare it to the course of human history, that affluence was measured by some family member having the opportunity to complete this task of killing and butchering on a weekly basis, as normal as fueling the car or stocking up on frozen dinners at the grocery store or recording our favorite TV show.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Barn Pix!

The visiting Christian brothers, Ezra and David, have labored these past weeks to resurrect the barn, with my somewhat sketchy oversight. Here are the first photos of the results of their hard work.

The barn has been a blessing and a trial since it was first constructed ca. 2000 (I may be off by as much as a couple years).

It has been a long, hard lesson in "finish what you start, or maybe it isn't even worth starting." Because a proper attachment systen for the roof--used greenhouse plastic from a commercial greenhouse that retires its covers as soon as the warranty expires, for insurance reasons--had never been put in place, the plastic always had some slack. Rain formed huge aerial ponds, pulling more slack then catching more rain. Eventually that weight collapsed one of the bows.

There were other design flaws: the relatively flat slope at the peak didn't shed snow/ice well, so the weight of those further stressed the structure (lightweight steel hoops from a long-defunct quonset hut...someone dragged them over one day and said, "I bet you can figure out a use for these." We also never got the end walls closed in, so it wasn't terribly weatherproof.

But the concept of a greenhouse-style barn proved sound in several dimensions. The natural daylight was great for working with the sheep, skirting fleeces, puttering around on bad-weather days, etc. With a supplementary tarp, things could be stored dry, and the tarps didn't need rigorous tying. It was warm and protected when the day outside was blustery, even if still "well ventilated". A powerful halogen light aimed at the ceiling at night bounced off the plastic and gave a surprisingly uniform light to work by at night (though it proved essential to wire a piece of window screen loosely over it to keep bugs from roasting on the upward-facing glass).

The brilliant idea of running a 2x10 on edge ABOVE the bows to add a peak came from Sue, whose farm I worked on during 2005 and 2006 in the beautiful mountains of south central British Columbia. Her greenhouse had been purchased for a farm on the balmy, snowless coast, then later moved to the land of snowy winters. As with my barn, there wasn't enough pitch to shed snow, and this is how she had solved that problem (and proved it over many years). In my case, supporting the beam with posts, and then "hanging" the bows from it, took weight off the weakened bows and helped get things back in proper alignment. The framing to provide a base for the endwall covering (Lexan twinwall, leftover from my parents' greenhouse, that has sat unused for so long that the green protective film seems permanently bonded to the Lexan) and "wiggle wire" polyfilm attachment system gives it a real "barn roof" example of "form follows function" right down the path of tradition.

With the barn fully enclosed this time, we'll be able to experiment with winter gardening in a "high-tunnel cold frame" setting. Part of that is experimenting with ways of getting rainwater that falls on the roof back to the ground under the roof where we're growing stuff, without a lot of expensive, energy-using pumps & stuff. Success in this will lead to a dedicated high-tunnel nearby, for winter market gardening.

The aluminum storm windows with screens, and the storm door, came from the local Habitat for Humanity ReStore. They'll provide ventilation with a view. By next summer, I'll figure out a shade covering to pull over the whole thing to keep things cooler inside.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Deadlines, Naturally

For much of my life, I've been motivated by deadlines. It's something one learn early on in school: Turn things in on time, or else. The deadline is always something definite and stated. The rewards and punishments are reasonably clear.

After public school, vo-tech and college furthered my tendency to live by deadlines. "Just in time" management was a way of life as I struggled to make ends meet with both money and time. My years of work in the printing industry accustomed me to daily deadlines, esp. working for a daily newspaper. I juggled "multiple complex tasks simultaneously" working for an environmental consulting firm--which ment keeping track of dozens of deadlines, from the contract proposals to the final reports. Just managing a household involves a lot of deadlines: the due dates on all those bills, the date the sale ends, when property taxes are due.

The deadlines in farming are often very different. Those related to dealing with "the outside world" are basically the same as for any household or workplace: clearly defined, though sometimes negotiable. Bills, order dates, ad deadlines.

Natural deadlines are another matter. I know they lie ahead of me, I know about when they'll be, but they are unknowable until they occur. Some of them are instantaneous: when the temperature hits 32 degrees, the frost-sensitive plants die. Some are more vague: the time at which it's too late to plant peas in the spring.

And yet they are the unshakeable framework of each farming year.

Frost is the main one looming before me now. Actually, before that, "pre-frost"--the mid-30's temperature at which basil plants dissolve into black goo, as though they've been frozen, when actually the freezing temperature of water is still several degrees away. And even before pre-frost is the time when the household has to begin to remember to close the windows when the sun starts to go down, to keep in the solar heat of the day and postpone the lighting of the wood stove.

Our usual first frost is in mid-October, though one year we had a hard freeze in late September. That year the trees turned crispy gray-green and dropped freeze-dried leaves long before their natural colorful senescence. Another year I sold field-ripened tomatoes right up through the first Saturday in November. I watch the forecasts almost daily now, tracking the gradual, wavering decline of night-time temperatures. I watch the evening sky, hoping for clouds: a cloudy night sky reflects heat back onto the earth, while an "open" night sky lets all the residual heat of the ground and other earth-bound objects radiate out into the universe, attempting to overcome absolute zero.

After the first frost, sometime, then there will come the day that the ground freezes, and digging operations will cease for the year. This is a vague deadline; for awhile the frost in the ground will come and go, morning and afternoon. The soil will be slushy but still diggable. But then it will be solid.

A light frost will not freeze hoses or hydrants. But as the frosty nights grow colder and more frequent, the livestock watering system must transition from automatic waterers and hydrants on 24/7 to stack tank deicers and hoses drained each time they are used, lest ice inside them prevent the flow of water to a tank.

In spring, these wintertime restrictions are released, an even fuzzier kind of deadline. Somewhere between February and June is the last frost...but how do I know in April, instead of June, that it was the last frost? When will it be "safe" to plant the heat-lovers and install the automatic waterers again?

The greatest challenge I face in living a double life right now--half in, half out of the rat race--is "planning" for these unpredictable deadlines.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Straight Ahead, Ramming Speed

"Natalya! One of the rams is in with the ewes!"

Suddenly my mental "to-do" list hits the mental trash can. I take a deep breath, and walk out to assess the situation.

Yes, there is a certain urgency here...if the other ram manages to breach the fence as well, mayhem could ensue. Breaking up a fight between two breeding rams is NOT a safe or easy proposition. The sound of 200+ lb. animals flinging themselves at one another's heads is something that is more felt than heard--an indescribable sensation that I always hope never to experience again. If there is just one fence separating them, and they decide to fight, the fence becomes inconsequential. I've seen welded rod cattle panels beaten into curvilinear sculptures in a matter of minutes. The boys don't even seem to notice that they are crushing the metal between their heads.

Thankfully they are not yet fighting, and they are in separate pens. So the first response is to quietly move the ewe flock, with the stray ram, into a different pen separated by TWO fences.

Then to observe, ponder, plan. How long has he been in there? No one knows. How many ewes has he bred? Ditto. Which ones? Unknown, but important information...we'll know for sure about 150 days from now. That would make it about March 1. The 4th Sat. in February--our annual shearing day--is about a week earlier, so that's a reasonable margin. I don't like to shear during lambing.

My experience last year with two distinct lambing seasons was: insanity. One is enough. In observing Buddy with the ewe flock, I see that he's very interested in at least 4 ewes, and has mounted at least 3 of those in my presence. Based on all of that, I decide that today is the beginning of breeding season. God and Buddy have decided the date for me, whether I like it or not. Well, probably they know as much about such things as I do, or more, so I'll just go with the flow.

So I sort out the ewes to breed to Buddy (including today's favorite ladies) and set aside a few to breed to Dudley, mostly based on trying not to breed daughters to sires, and putting as many as possible with Buddy who will be out on pasture with better access for us to haul in hay to feed his harem.

Dudley and his select few are in a new pen, in the east part of the front yard. Before putting them in there, I took a few minutes to overseed with rye and bromegrass seed. That pen is mostly Bermudagrass these days, which will frost-kill. The rye will hopefully give some fall and winter grazing, while "nursing" the baby brome that I hope may outstrip the Bermudagrass.

A few of the smaller lambs are in the barn pen, for special feeding. Other than these, my lambs this year are pretty much grass-fed, very little grain so far. The hanging weights on the carcasses processed last week were pretty comparable with previous years, considering the age of the lambs, so I'm quite pleased. Next year the pasture will be even better (God willing) and I'll be more confident about advertising "grassfed lambs".

That took the entire morning, right up until time to change into a bus driver for the rest of the day.

Friday, October 5, 2007

A Frog in my....

...Garage, of all places!

Frogs and toads have very specific habitat needs, requiring water for their eggs and juvenile life stages (tadpoles), and generally requiring a moist environment as adults.

My life experience has been that most PROPER frogs--i.e., bullfrogs and leopard frogs--are seen only very near permanent bodies of water, like ponds and streams. Toads may be found pretty much anywhere in a garden, and tree frogs are well-camouflaged but widespread. On Pinwheel Farm, I never expected to see "proper" frogs except perhaps in the wilderness area along Maple Grove Tributary, where I know several species dwell in great numbers.

So my occasional sightings of leopard frogs, in years past, have been real surprises...pleasant ones, since these beautiful big spotted frogs always bring back happy memories of camping in Canada when I was a child. Yet such spottings have been isolated enough for me to assume they were just "vagrants" on their way from here to there...much like the crayfish that appeared on a friends's front porch after a gullywasher thunder storm.

The first leopard frog I ever saw here was just outside the back door. Well, at least I can say I saw enough of it to be pretty sure it was a leopard frog. Most of it was obscured by a chicken's beak, and the chicken was frantically trying to out-race all the other chickens in order to keep her prize. (A lesson could be taken from this familiar chicken scenario: If you try to keep a treasure to yourself, you don't get to enjoy it because you're so busy trying to keep everyone else from getting it away from you.)

The a few years ago I heard a commotion in the grass near the shed, and turned to see a good-sized snake doggedly chasing after a fleeing frog.

This does not seem to be good frog habitat. Many frog-eaters, and no frog pond.

But wait...what does a "pond" look like to a frog? Perhaps they don't have such pre-conceived notions as I do. Perhaps water is the only requirement, not a mossy muddy bank with cattails. One day I lifted the plywood lid on a plastic stock tank to check the water level, and saw dozens of eyes staring back at me. Leopard frogs surrounded the lip of the tank! My guess is that I have a breeding population in that tank, which is shaded much of the day and little used in the summer. They are there again this year.

The frog that startled me by hopping across the garage floor tonight was a new sighting for Pinwheel Farm: a young bullfrog about 3 inches long, about the color of wet concrete. Without the classic green lips, and considering the small stature, I wasn't sure it was a bullfrog until I googled "bullfrog" and found a picture that confirmed my guess. It was pretty patient about being put in a container for close examination and photographing....

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Seeing the Forest

You look at a problem, and look at it, and look at it.

You look at another problem, and look at it, and look at it.

And maybe 10 years later you suddenly see that the trees are all part of the same forest, and the solution to one challenge is also the solution to another challenge, and in putting them together in such a manner there is no longer a challenge, but an opportunity.

For example....

Ever since I got sheep and started buying feed for them, I've wrestled with the dilemma of what to do with the heavy brown paper feed sacks that accumulate. For one thing, I have to pay for every sack, and they aren't cheap...several dollars a piece. For another thing, it just drives me nuts to waste that many trees.

Sometimes, I buy bulk feed to prevent the accumulation of sacks. This is certainly the best solution, but various logistical and storage challenges have made it difficult or risky at times. And I do like to have feed sacks on hand for a number of things: trash bags, storage for various items, drop cloths, padding, etc. They're right up there with baling twine/wire on the list of "rigging" essentials. But like baling twine, either you don't have any or you have WAY too much for such uses.

Ever since I started making soap from the scraps of fat that the meat processing folks trim off of my lamb chops and legs of mutton, I've puzzled over some sort of sustainable packaging for it....

Now just by reading those two paragraphs one after the other, you, dear Reader, have doubtless already put two and two together and figured out that I could wrap soap in old feed sacks. How perfectly obvious! Especially to those of you who know my life-long love affair with the paper arts/crafts.

But soap happens in the garage, and feed sacks generally don't participate in that activity except as table coverings. And feed sacks live in the feed shed and don't hang out with the soapmaking on a daily basis. One is in the realm of "outside work". One is in the realm of "inside work". In a traditional agrarian social system, one is part of the "man's work" and the other is part of the "woman's work". So even though the same brain does both the "outside"/"man's" work and the "inside"/"woman's" work on this farm, the problems from those two roles didn't present themselves side by side until just now.

The really delightful added dimension to this discovery is that once this brainstorm began to catalyze, one great idea led to another. It took just a few minutes to figure out that not only could I wrap soap in cut-up feed sacks, I could run the wrappers through my inkjet printer and fill both sides of the labels with information on why we raise sheep and make "sheep soap"!

An initial challenge was cutting the sacks (3 heavy layers of kraft-type paper, even heavier than grocery-bag paper). But...yet another example of how wonderfully God has led me on a merry chase through so many diverse fields and occupations on my way to farming, to make sure I had the necessary skills...drawing on my fine-arts printmaking and commercial offset printing training and experience, I scouted out a long steel straight-edge and quickly, neatly tore the paper to the right size. Easier than cutting, and guarantees rustic, soft edges that look great and also won't cut unsuspecting fingers.

A whole new realm of farm by-product crafts awaits me in the towering stack of feed sacks, whenever I have time to take up some of my beloved book arts again.... First and foremost, I know what I'll use for cover stock for the little books of my writings that I've been working on....

A short scrap of handspun yarn left from some project or another, or a strip of fabric torn from an old garment, will complete the soap packaging.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The Challenge of Momentum

An object at rest tends to remain at rest; an object in motion tends to remain in motion.

Lately (as you may have noticed) I've been having a hard time getting blog entries written. Since I'm generally pretty obsessive when it comes to writing, I've been wondering what's up with that. Just sort of sitting back and watching the patterns of my daily life shift and change, curious about what this will all look like in hindsight someday.

Have I burned out on blogging already?

Am I allowing myself to be unproductively distracted from important things by the cheerful presence of so many other people at the farm? Am I spending too much time admiring Emily's cat Hamlet's velvet tummy, or giggling at the potato Ann Marie found that looks like a smiling hippopotamus,or just relaxing and listening to the ordinary chat of my housemates?

Am I burning the candle at both ends too much still, honestly not having time to write?

As I sit down tonight, determined to write SOMETHING, I realize my biggest problem is that there is just so much to write about, I don't know where to start....


My parent's dog Scout, Toss's 8-year-old daughter, has been staying with us for 10 days. It's always a joy to spend time with Toss's children, and see their various sweet personalities and peculiarities. Scout is normally very obedient in her sheep-free home, but is totally mesmersized by my sheep...I felt obliged to share the gift that my parents made in return for her care with the other farm residents, just for so frequently putting up with listening to me holler her name louder and louder until I could finally wrest her attention away from those fascinating woolies. Hm... I think I remember Mom using the same technique to get my attention when I was reading a good book or engrossed in a project, when I was in high school. They say people come to resemble their pets, but I think it more likely that people somehow end up being drawn to the animals they most resemble.


Ann Marie and I have been digging potatoes and planting fall vegetables, a bed every few days. Carrots, green onions, lettuce, spinach, turnips, radishes, tatsoi, mizuna, beets, chard, etc. With generous recent rains, things are coming up and growing like...well...weeds. So are the weeds. I see that Ann Marie is poised in that ephemeral time of innocence, where she (a very novice but enthusiatic gardener) is in awe of the miracle of seeds sprouting up through the mulch just a couple days after she put them into dry ground, delighted by houw easy it is...and as yet has no clue of the work to come in weeding and thinning. I could disillusion her, but am content not to. Let me instead be refreshed by her reminding me that seeds ARE such miracles, and try to dwell with her in that state of amazement and wonder!


A friend and I went to this month's Growing Growers workshop at Karbaumer Farm in Platte City, MO, this afternoon. It was a perfect October day...glowing sunlight, hardly a bit of breeze, a balmy temperature, a few trees just starting to show fall colors amid the lush green. Idyllic farm, big red wooden barn, chickens roaming at large, draft horses placidly flicking their flaxen tails as they alternately grazed and hung over the fence to watch us, the aging three-legged dog tagging along with the drifing group of market gardeners and wannabes.

This 60-year-old German farmer affirmed so many aspects of my own beliefs about farming: the importance of livestock on a farm, the unsustainability of extensive irrigation, the value of mulch, the need to accept limitations and work within them to find the things that grow well where we are trying to grow them. The philosophy that keeping overhead (equipment costs, etc.) low is a key to developing an economically viable operation. The critical importance of local food production.

Above all (from my point of view) he affirmed that it is possible for a novice to learn to farm with horses. Despite very limited experience with horses, I've felt drawn to them all my life (starting out as a toddler escaping the yard to run and hang over the fence by the neighbor's horse), and have always felt they would one day be an important part of Pinwheel's farming system. The key, he says, is to begin by knowing that you know nothing, start with a older team of horses that knows what they are doing, and let them teach you. Essentially, this is how I learned to handle a Border Collie for sheep herding: Toss taught me, patiently waiting until I could figure out the correct command for her to do the action she knew I wanted, ignoring all the mistaken commands that Itried to give.

Don't hold your breath--one of my lessons from beginning with sheep was that "right ordering" is to build the barn first, THEN get the livestock. But, today I feel like I'm one little baby step closer to living out my dream of farming with horses.


Ruhamah and I made a batch of soap last night, the first I've made in probably 4 years. I'm still using the last few bars from the last batch. This is one reason that most soapmakers, even those without vegetarian sympathies, make vegetable oil soaps: a bar of soap made from animal fat will generally last much longer than a bar made from veggie oil, so the soapmaker doesn't have many regular customers. What a statement about our culture: if something works well and lasts a long time, people don't make it because other people won't buy it!

My soap is very simple: rendered sheep fat, sheep milk, and "Red Devil" lye. In this case, both the fat and the soap have been in the freezer for the past 3+ years. I was skeptical as to whether the milk would work: it seemed to separate as it thawed. But I went ahead with the process, and it certainly went through the normal textural transition of the initial saponification process.

One of the challenges of making a milk-based soap is to keep the reaction heat of the lye, as it combines with the liquid, from scorching the milk. This darkens the soap, which is normally a pale creamy color. Also, there can be small lumps in the granular lye that don't dissolve well in the milk. They are hard to see in the murky milk solution, and hard to break up without the risk of splashing the caustic solution in the process.

I solve all these challenges at once, by putting the mostly-frozen milk in a sturdy slide-opener plastic freezer bag, and opening the bag now and then to add a small amount of the granular lye at a time. Meanwhile, the bag is mostly submerged in a dishpan full of ice water. When the bag is closed, I massage it to mix the milk with the lye and feel for lumps, pressing them between my fingers to break them up. When pouring, the lye/milk solution trickles slowly out the end of the "zipper", right against the side of the stainless steel pot to avoid spashing, and any remaining lumps are retained in the bag. Of course, since lye is highly caustic, the first thing I do when preparing to mix the lye and milk is to don eye goggles, neoprene gloves, and lab coat, make sure the area is well ventilated, and protect all surrounding surfaces with newspaper.

The ice bath worked so well that instead of waiting for the lye to cool to the designated temperature of 95 degrees, I was hoping that 89 degrees would be warm enough. The fat, on the other hand, was nearly 140 when I combined them...a bit warmer than the target 130. After perhaps 20 minutes of stirring, doubting and praying, I could feel the mixture begin to thicken, and soon it began to "trace" leaving a faint indented channel behind the stirring stick--a custard-like texture. I learned the hard way on my first batch not to doubt my assessment of the "trace", by waiting until it was REALLY thick...too thick to level itself in the mold, resulting in a lumpy surface. Last night I poured at nearly the right stage, only the last few drops remain visible on the smooth surface.


So, after all that thinking and writing about the soap, I had to dash off from the computer to go check it out, 24 hours later. Still a lovely pale creamy color, about the color of masking tape. It's quite hard, so I realize that I'd better turn my thoughts to the next stage of cutting the slab (18" x 25", about 3/4" thick) into bars. If you think this is easy, go grab a bar of soap and a steak knife and try to cut the soap into nice neat pieces! Years back, I had limited success with a pizza cutter. The time-honored method is a wire used cheese-cutter fashion, but it's hard to cut a straight line this way.

This time, laying hands on whatever was nearby in the garage, I came up with a method that worked well. I used the pizza cutter and a yard stick to mark the top of the slab (turned out of its cloth-lined plywood box onto a piece of cardboard) into 72 bars about 2" x 3" (just how the numbers divided out easily). Then I took the 30" bow saw that I use for cutting firewood and aligned the teeth along a scored line. A rubber mallet--and more elbow grease than I expected--handily tapped the blade through the slab of soap without undue chipping, leaving a partly cut, partly scored incision that breaks easily into neat bars with rustic edges.

The soap will need to cure for a week or two before use, since the saponification process (the chemical union of water and fat through the chemical aid of the lye, resulting in a miraculous cleaning agent that bonds to both greasy and watery substances) is generally only mostly completed during the initial mixing and hardening. Without proper curing (or with imbalanced amounts of the various ingredients), unbonded lye can remain, creating a harsh soap.

After curing, this Simple Sheep Soap can be used for many things. I wash my hands, body and hair with it, using a plain vinegar rinse on my hair for a "squeaky clean" tangle-free finish. I also use it for dish washing by putting a few chips in a small bag (usually the well-bleached 5-inch chunk of the toe of a cotton sock whose heel wore out) and using the sock to wipe the dishes.


....And the other hard thing about writing this blog is knowing when and how to STOP writing, once I get going....