Thursday, January 31, 2008

Who Goes There?

I mentioned recently that some unknown critter has a tunnel into the chicken house, yet the hens were all still accounted for.

Tonight as I did my late-evening check on everyone, a bit of motion caught the beam of my headlamp. At first it seemed like just another inky shadow under the metal nest boxes. Then I realized it was fur...long black fur...and since the cat was on my shoulder I knew it must be the skunk.

The same one that allegedly killed so many hens, now leaving these hens alone? Who knows! Maybe the skunk had just stumbled onto someone else's kill, and got caught scavenging.

Perhaps it is now eating eggs, since the hens are laying again. Some days, it seems like there ought to be more eggs.....

Perhaps it is now eating grain instead of flesh. We've changed our feeding regimen so that we're putting some fresh grain mix in the feeder when the hens are closed up at dusk, since usually they have a light on for awhile.

Perhaps seasonal metabolic needs have changed.

Perhaps it's a different skunk.

Anyhow, the dilemma is whether to do anything (like block its burrow) or not. A wise rule of thumb is "better the predator you know than the predator you don't know." If this skunk is foiled, another skunk, or another predator species, might take over the territory with worse results.

I generally take the lazy way, so the skunk will be tolerated unless some day I happen to be working in the chicken yard and have a whim to block the hole. It's a risk. But so's farming.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

What's Wrong with this Picture?

This was the general scene in the main sheep pen for at least five minutes after I released the ewes to eat their breakfast of alfalfa hay along the fence. Note that two ewes are oblivious to the tasty treats...too busy deciding who's top ewe.
The ewes are Tailor (grey, on the left) and Perfle (white, on the right)...both good, productive Lincoln crosses. I watched for several minutes as they butted--hard!--and shoved one another around. Then walked to the house for the camera, without too much hurry. Sure enough, they were still at it when I got back.
Perfle has been the "spokesheep" of the flock at least since last summer. There's always one ewe that's the bosslady, signaling when to rise and when to move from one area to another. She also is often the first to come up to the gate when there's treats, or to stand there and yell at me if the mineral feeder needs refilled. The bosslady role tends to be filled by one ewe for years.
A ram has some influence on the social structure of the flock, but not a lot. The bosslady is the real leader, the matriarch. Nevertheless, the ram's one-way trip last week (part of him becoming yummy lasagna as I type this) probably opened up the social hierarchy of the flock for "discussion".
I suspect Tailor has been challenging Perfle's position in the flock, and Perfle decided to put her in her place this morning. Though there was quite a bit of circling, mostly Perfle had her back to theflock, and was relentlessly keeping Tailor away from the flock and the food. They would back up a couple steps, then slam foreheads together...not the 20 paces back and charge of fighting rams, but enough force to make a sickening thud each time the two ewes collided. They would shake their heads a little, almost imperceptibly, then slam each other again. After a few frontal slams, one would sidestep, and they'd throw their heads at each other sideways, then shoulder each other around in circles.
Eventually they worked their way nearer the flock, and after a few last shoves (mainly Perfle slamming Tailor) they burrowed in with the rest of the flock.
I'll be interested to see how this plays out over the next few days, and in the long run.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

What Became of the Oppossum?

...Someone wrote to inquire.

The barking was because it was on the other side of another fence (not shown in the picture) where they couldn't reach. In typical possum mode, it was just sitting there like a statue when I first investigated the barking, slightly to one side of the fence. In the time it took me to walk to the house, find the camera, etc., it had moved maybe 2 feet to the position you see it in...and stayed exactly there while I leaned over one fence and around another to get this shot of it less than 4 feet from me. I never saw it move the least little muscle...not even detectable breathing.

I took the dogs in with me, and I imagine it wandered slowly off. It may be living in my new barn or the neighbor's horse barn. It might be the mysterious creature I suspect is stealing eggs from the nest boxes. At any rate, its most likely fate is flat on the road some day.

I'm pretty tolerant of possums. They can eat eggs, kill young chickens, even rarely older ones...but they are pretty minor predators, and sort of cute in their own primitive, piggly way. They are North America's only marsupial (young are born as tiny fetuses, then "gestate" in a pouch on Mom's belly until they are ready to survive outside), and they have more teeth than any other warm-blooded critter (88, if I remember right...more than twice what we have). Their tail is very strong and is prehensile (an extra "hand" for clinging onto trees), so if I need to remove one from a chicken house I can pick it up by the tail (usually with leather gloves) to carry it off, held well out from my side in case it would try to catch my clothing in its hand-like little paws and try to climb me. They just sit/hang there while you do that...all their motions are like the proverbial molasses in January. Their fastest gait is a waddle, barely faster than my slow walking pace. They may bare their awesome snaggly jagged teeth at me and hiss, but that's about it.

When dogs get them, they really do play dead. I've watched a dog toss a possum around for some time, audibly crunching bones over and over before the dog eventually got bored and wandered off. I was certain it was dead...only to return to the spot hours later and find it had wandered off.

Their other defense is a gland under their tail that exudes green pus-like "musk", skunky but thankfully not aerosol.

They make me smile just to think such a thing can exist and blunder through life, generation after generation, for millions of years with so little in its favor! Gives me hope for myself, if I just keep muddling slowly along.....

Why the Dogs Were Barking Weirdly

Friday, January 11, 2008

Trailers and Tribulations

I admit real pride in few things, and boast on even fewer. But I DO pride myself on my ability to back a trailer.

This is not puffed-up self-flattery. I have been--more than once--certified as a Real Good Trailer Backer by a Real Authority, the guy at Lonnie's Recycling.

Lonnie's is a metal recycling business that misses being an old-fashioned junkyard by frequent exports of truckloads of mangled metal STUFF. Because they buy not just scrap steel but also other metals, including aluminum, Lonnie's has a characteristic smell of stale beer/pop/rust/grime. Despite that, I like going there. They REALLY don't care if my boots are muddy, or I'm tired and gruff. They give me money for stuff that's too rusty to use on the farm any more--not much, but a little. That makes it a LOT cheaper than the landfill, and it's just a few blocks away which means less gas and less time. And usually I see something that the last person dropped off that looks like it's still good, to me, and I haggle a bit with the Lonnie's guy and it ends up in the back of my truck for what is probably just a stay of execution, the first half of a round trip that will ultimately end where it started, in the yard at Lonnie's. Things like a really high-quality tempered glass storm door with all the hardware; many sheets of corrugated galvanized roofing; a bucket of clamps for fastening chain link dog run panels together.

And I like Lonnie's because they acknowledge my backing ability.

Sometimes the yard is pretty cluttered, especially when they're sorting and loading their trucks for an export. This one particular day, they wanted my load of stuff--in a pickup bed trailer--w-a-a-a-a-y back at the back, at the end of a narrow lane meandering through canyons of scrapped appliances. They'd never seen me with a trailer before. I could see by the look on the guy's face, he was settling in for a long, frustrating job of directing me back to the right spot. That well-there-goes-my-coffeebreak look.

I calmly ignored the guy, took my time, lined up the truck and trailer, and began to back...around to the left...back to the right...angle a bit that way...and on back, in a perfect, sinous double "s" curve traversing a good 100 feet.

"D***n!" He said in pleased disbelief, seeing a coffeebreak coming after all.

"You can back a trailer." He paused. He looked me in the eye with frank approval.

"You can back a trailer better than most men!"

Then he scuffed his foot at something on the ground. "Aw, heck. Most men can't back a trailer."

I'm still proud of that act of backing--it WAS beautifully done--and I'm still grinning over his response.
Backing a trailer is relatively newly learned art in my life, however. For all intents and purposes, I first backed a trailer about 6 or 7 years ago, the fall of the year I bought the van. The van was great for going to Farmer's Market, but I needed to haul sheep to the meat processing plant, and the trucks that I'd been borrowing from friends for that purpose were no longer available, for various reasons. So when I had the chance to buy a pickup bed trailer that would hitch to the van, I jumped at the chance. In the back of my mind was my lifelong dread of backing a trailer under any circumstances, right next to the mental image of the stock pen loading dock at the processing plant: a long, low, unforgiving concrete wall right next to the driveway, and not much leeway for lining up the trailer door with the pen door.

The night before I was to deliver the sheep, I hitched up the newly-acquired trailer and drove to a nearby deserted shopping center with a huge lot. For an hour, with no one looking, no one confusing me with directions like "Right! Right! No, I meant left! No! No! Other left!"--I backed the trailer in and out of painted parking spaces and when I felt OK about that, I practiced backing it right alongside curbs, mentally picturing that concrete wall.

And ever since, I can pretty much put a trailer where I want it, mostly by totally ignoring anyone standing around waving their hands. "JUST TELL ME IF I'M ABOUT TO HIT THAT POST I CAN'T SEE," I tell them. So there they are gesturing wildly and yelling "Cut hard to the left! Other way! Now back" ???? I'm still 30 feet from the post! Like I said, ignoring them.
This train of thought arose from moving the trailer this morning, from the side yard (where it was storing green firewood) to the new property (where it will serve as a trash trailer for cleaning out the barn). Not a difficult backing operation, but a good learning experience for the new apprentice, who had virtually no trailer experience. And a good chance to appreciate how far I've come with respect to trailers.

I grew up with trailers being an intimate part of everyday life, thanks to the family hobby of sailing small boats. 3/4 of the year, I was present at hitching, trailing, backing, least one day a week. What I learned, first and foremost, was to NOT BREATHE the entire time a trailer is being backed within 100 yards of me. Because anything that went wrong might be blamed on the sound of my breath.

Or that's how it seemed to that little kid. As an adult, I can put myself in Dad's shoes a lot easier. It had probably been 12 hours since we'd left home that morning. Everyone was tired, hungry, grouchy, sunburned, and sick of togetherness; had sand (or something) in their shoes (or somewhere); and had lost something either in the car seat or at the lake. The do-hicky had broken, and the thing-a-ma-jig had jammed. The kids had bickered and whined the whole 1 1/2 hour drive home from the lake...or else had sung 99 Bottles of Beer all the way down to 1 Bottle. And then, THEN, with this car full of kids still squirming and griping, he had to back the boat down the barely-wide-enough driveway, between the neighbor's overgrown hedge and the brick wall of the house, around a slight curve, and into far side of the almost-two-car garage.

At any rate, my general impression was that backing a trailer was a horrible thing to have to do, and doing it well was next to impossible, and I might as well just quit while I was ahead and avoid the issue entirely. After all, many people in the world have been extremely successful who have probably never backed a trailer in their lives. It wasn't a required course.

And then I took up farming.
We went over a lot of procedural stuff in detail, especially safety precautions.

--First and foremost: Never do anything with a trailer when you're in a hurry or have limited time. If there is, unavoidably, some sense of pressure or necessity about the operation, energize your strongest force field against it to keep it at bay. Hurry is a sure-fire way of ensuring a back trailer-backing experience, over. Murphy is always present at trailer backings, flinging hitch pins into the tall grass, mysteriously sliding blocks back under the wheels, wreaking havoc with the fit of the electical connector.

--Never put any body part where it could be crushed or pinned if the trailer rolled, tipped or fell. Especially never put fingers between the hitch and the ball to try to figure out why the ball won't seat properly on the hitch. If you need to examine the inner workings of the hitch mechanism, pull the vehicle forward so the ball is not under the hitch.

--Always chock both sides of both wheels before doing anything else when parking a trailer, and remove the chocks last when hitching. This is especially important with a trailer that has a wheel on the tongue jack.

--Always install the hitch locking pin, safety chains, and electrical connection all at the same time, lest you get distracted and forget to go back and finish something. When unhitching, same thing. Otherwise you will eventually end up driving off with the electrical connection still plugged in, and regret it. You can pull a trailer off its blocks and/or jack in the process. Not good.

--Never climb into a trailer that isn't hooked to a vehicle, unless you have blocked the rear of the trailer up. Otherwise you are playing teeter-totter with the trailer, and apt to get some nasty bumps.

--Criss-cross the safety chains under the tongue when hooking them up so that the tongue would be supported by the cross if the hitch became detached.

--The person guiding the driver for hitching ideally should stand on the driver's side of the truck, for best communication. This is hopefully the broader side of the angle between truck and trailer, if the tow vehicle is not in a straight line with the trailer (common at the farm, since I tend to park trailers alongside fences, and yet still need to be able to get the cab door open).

--All vehicle windows should be open, for best visibility and to be able to hear each other.

--People being people, if things are suddenly and catastrophically going wrong, the ground person may not be able to think of anything more articulate or explicit than "Ack!" at the moment. If the ground person's comment is EVER not fully intelligible, the driver should stop IMMEDIATELY and find out exactly what's going on before proceeding.

--Having a goundperson should not replace getting out periodically to visually assess progress.

--Driver and ground person should establish a common language before starting to maneuver.

Happy trails to you, Dear Reader!

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Tooling Up for Spring

It is wonderful to have a winter apprentice this year!

Right now we're working together for an hour or so every morning, doing a lot of orientation-type stuff--where things are (and where they are supposed to be...), what they are called, routines, procedures, etc. He's learning to do the sheep and chicken chores so that when his college classes start again next week, and he only has time in the afternoons, he can work independently doing evening chores. When lambing time looms, I will appreciate knowing that someone is checking in on the ewes and lambs by daylight in the then there will BE daylight in the evening. Already I can tell the lengthening days by the changing light on my bus route.

We're also getting ready for gardening. Yesterday, and for many pleasant "outside" days to come, the tomato cage roundup. Today, due to "inclement weather" (not sure what to call it--rain/sleet/snow alternating as they pleased, which didn't please me), we had an "indoor day".

The first day of a new tradition I hope to establish for the farm: rejuvenating the garden tools. Starting with some that were left muddy when the weather changed suddenly and we had to abandon work on digging the new outhouse, we're cleaning all the shovels, rakes, etc., smoothing any rusty or splintery parts, dressing the metal with tallow and the handles with linseed oil, and sharpening as appropriate. It's a good way for a newcomer to get to know each tool, and a good way for me to take stock and see what repair are needed when we can do it at leisure, before we start gardening.

As we talked about the characteristics of wear and tear on various tools, we ended up in a discussion of levers. How?

Broken handles are our most common tool malfunction, and many factors contribute to them. General exposure to the weather (i.e. leaving them lay in the garden rather than putting them in the shed) is a big one. The finish wears off, and the wood gets dry and splinters and cracks. But some tools seem to have unusual rates of handle breakage, even though we try to take good care of them because they are our favorite and most-used tools. Most specifically, the tools that get stood in the ground and left there have the worst breakage problems, especially the really well-made ones that are forged steel rather than stamped sheet metal. The forged "sharpshooter" shovel and the stainless steel digging fork are notorious for frequent handle replacements.

Last summer, I realized a key factor in that breakage pattern. They tend to break right at the top of the socket. Unlike their stamped counterparts, the forged tools' sockets have no means to drain water when stood upright in the ground, as we are likely to do with these often-used tools. Even if we put them in the shed each time we use them, so often we are out using them in the rain, and they are wet when we bring them in. So the wood inside the socket--where we can't easily dress it with linseed oil from time to time--stays damp, and eventually rots and weakens even though the rest of the handle seems ok. So from now on we'll tape over the joint between socket and handle with electrical tape or some such, to shed water away from this critical joint. Hopefully that will reduce the need to replace handles so frequently. Not only are the handles expensive, but getting the fragments of the old one out of a solid socket can be very frustrating, and getting the new handle to fit properly in the socket can be a challenge as well.

But also, the very thing we love about these forged tools--their strength--is a factor in the increased handle breakage. Because these forged tools ARE so strong...the metal neck doesn't give, so the stress is all on the wood. And we put a lot of force on these tools that are our digging workhorses", because we use them as powerful levers every time we turn over a bit of soil with them. The fulcrum is the solid earth behind the tool, usually on the mid- to upper part of the blade/tines. The harder and more stationary the fulcrum, the more force we are going to have to use to turn over that sun-baked clod we're trying to separate from the fulcrum! The breaking point--the socket joint--is midway on the lever. When I throw the bulk of my 130 lbs. on the very outer end of that handle, busting out a hill of potatoes in droughty ground, it's not surprising that something "gives".

The only solution for that aspect of the problem is awareness of our own strength, and our tools' limitations. "Easy does it"...Doing things in smaller "bites" is more sustainable not just for our aching backs but also for our tools, which don't mend themselves or increase in strength the way our bodies do.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Crazy Quilt Weather

Three days before Christmas we had thunder and snow at the same time?

Was it just a week ago it got down to 2 degrees one night?

And we had about 6" of snow on the ground for weeks?

And then it's been in the 60's?

And now the Border Collies are burrowing under me as I write for fear of the thunder rumbling around us?

Gotta love Kansas weather--or wait five minutes and love DIFFERENT Kansas weather.

This spring-like interlude of unknown brevity between winter storms is a predictably busy time. Catch up on wood cutting...but oops, now it's all wet because it's raining. Pick up junk that the snow had covered. Dump water out of things that hadn't gotten turned over before the snow. Quick, drive t-posts while the ground is thawed!

And most important, run around and look for "green growy things"!

The fall/overwintering garden is exciting! The two beds of spinach throve under the snow, and if I could stay in one place long enough I could pick a salad. The cilantro is also thriving, a continuous surprise. A few chard plants seem to have lived through the first deep open (snowless) freezes, as did a few salad turnips and of course the volunteer purple top turnips. Lettuce under its Lexan tent is green (and red). Onions and carrots also prove hardy once again.

As do rabbits. The onions look like they've been mowed. Sigh. But under the Lexan, the dreadful Lexan where rabbits never went last spring? The lettuce also has been mowed down. So, further refinement of this system is clearly indicated. Close the ends of the Lexan tunnels? Row covers? Chicken wire around the garden?

Or start trapping rabbits?

Or settle for store-bought salad?

Too muddy to do much in the garden, but my new volunteer and I made a good first effort on the annual tomato cage roundup. Now (if not sooner) is the time to get them pulled up, cleaned of last year's vines, straightened out, sorted, stacked, and inventoried. Now is the time because in just a month and a half (how fast that will go!) we'll be hard into the new year of the farm with preparations for Sheep Shearing Day. Now is the time because there are various strongholds of feral cages all over the farm, from various past gardeners, that never got properly rounded up last year or while I was away for two years, that make the farm look messy and create entrapment dangers when the sheep graze those areas.

We're stacking the cages in the chicken pen this year. The idea is that the hawks will have a hard time catching chickens among the cages, and weeds will have a hard time growing around the cages with the chickens scratching around. The thought is to rotate the hens through the garden year by year, letting them scratch up and fertilize each block in turn while keeping young trees from growing among the tomato cages--one of the older stacks will require a pruning saw.

We'll see. Check back in a year or two and see how it worked! In a decade, maybe we'll have the bugs worked out...or the chickens will be eating them! Testing ideas can take a long time on the farm. It's a slow science.

It's also a large art, 12 acres of canvas to layer again and again with the colors of every season, thought and mood.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Glory Hallelujah!

Things wander through my mind apparently at random as I'm driving the bus, sometimes. A bit of song, a non-sequiter thought, a desire for ice cream, a mental image of a friend.

Some of today's fragments were:

Mentally composing an advertisement for a new farm cat. Qualifications to include experience with mouse, rat, squirrel and rabbit control; preference for outdoor living; sociable with people of all ages. Etc.

Singing the rousing old Shape-Note hymn, "I know that my Redeemer lives"--"Shout on, pray on, we're gaining ground, Glory hallelujah, the dead's alive and the lost is found, Glory hallelujah!"


As I closed the truck door on my arrival home tonight, feeling weary and a little lonely, I heard a faint sound near the woodsheds. I stopped to listen. A cat's tiny mew. "Kittykittykitty" I called out gently, expecting a new stray in the neighborhood. A familiar chirrup answered me. AMBROSIUS appeared out of the shadows, hesitantly working his way towards me!

Ambrosius had been missing for about 5 weeks, way longer than his usual week-long walkabouts. I'd truly given him up for dead--or at least departed for a new home.

I scooped him up and he took his classic position on my left shoulder, curling into my neck with kneading paws and soft purrs as I balanced bags and tried to open the door. I invited him in, but he sprang down and lept to the shelf outside where his food bowl sits. Needless to say, I filled it with all possible haste! I'd just bought a large back of cat food when he disappeared, and after several weeks I gave it to my daughter, but kept back a jar full just in case of a miracle, or a new stray cat.

He's a bit thin, but seems in good health.

Before I went on sabbatical in 2005, he was an indoor-outdoor cat, spending a lot of time out hunting and helping with chores and gardening. In my absence, the tenants taught him that if he tore up the door and window screens, they would let him in the house. Or, if they didn't, in summer he could get in himself. This is NOT acceptable to me as a homeowner (and as someone who likes the mosquitos and flies to stay mostly outside where God created them). So on my return, I enforced a strict outside-only regimen, hoping to break him of his destructive habits. It seems to work...he quickly realized that he was NEVER allowed in the house, and resigned himself to staying outside. I fixed up a very sheltered den for him in the cabinet under his food dish, and he could hang out in the sheds any time.

But when he disappeared, I couldn't help but wonder whether he had gone looking for a new home where they would let him inside during cold weather. I'll never know, of course, but now that he's back we've agreed that he can have occasional house privileges as long as he leaves the screens alone, behaves well, stays off the counters, and doesn't make messes in the house.


And keeps his big feathery paws off the keyboard if he wants to sit in my lap while I write!

Dear reader, I hope that in 2008 you, too, can experience the humbling joy of having something restored to you that you had believed was lost for all time! Glory hallelujah, the dead's alive and the lost is found!

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Bird Tree Day Update--Jan. 3

The weary bus passenger heaved a sigh as he plopped into his seat this afternoon. "I can't believe it's 2008 already. It seems like 2007 went by so fast."

Deeper sigh. "And now I have to go take down my Christmas tree and all the decorations, and put them away. I hate doing that, it's so much work. Maybe I should just cover it with a blanket til next year."


This morning there was no trace that the Bird Tree had ever been decorated, unless you looked at the ground. There you could see snow that had been tramped by the decorators' footprints, the delicate tracks of the birds on untrampled snow, and a few bits of clementine peel. The deep green fir tree stood stately and serene, flexing only a little in the brisk cold wind.


I bit my tongue, responding the passenger only with sympathetic hmm's and oh?'s. Other people's traditions, especially Christmas ones, must be respected no matter how little sense they seem to make, to me. For some people it just isn't Christmas without someone getting drunk, someone going into hysterics, someone complaining bitterly about putting up/taking down the decoration, someone swearing they'll never cooking another Christmas dinner. The dramas, the annoyances, the hassles, the conflicts, the pain can be as much a part of a tradition as the twinkling lights, the wrapped packages, the sweet carols, the new dress to wear to church, the office Christmas party.

But my Christmas sure wasn't very stressful, and not much cleanup, either.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Bird Tree Day Update--Jan. 2

This morning the juncos were back in force. I watched for a long time as they worked...they figured out to hover near the crackers and peck off seeds and bites of crackers. Then a cardinal was doing the same thing, very pretty against the dark breen boughs. Some crackers were gone, and some were missing quite a bit of the lower half.

Then the squirrels came, two of them! There is no aerial access, so they had to nervously hop across the snowy yard, first one and then the other somewhat later. The first one scouted around the ground under the tree for awhile, then started to climb. It randomly explored various branches, pulling the tips to itself to smell them apparently. Its weight really bowed the springy branches. Yet it seemed not to visually notice decorations nearby. So it took awhile for it to figure out where the goodies were.

To get at a cracker decoration, one squirrel basically hung by its hind feet from a branch to reach out and grab a cracker and start nibbling. A couple times it slipped and had to scramble back up from a lower branch.

They didn't just grab the popcorn strings and run, as I'd expected. When they discovered one, they examined it very closely and took something off it a little ways to daintily nibble. I think they were looking especially for the dried cranberries. Eventually they started breaking off popcorn pieces and munching on them, in typical "squirrel with nut" posture.

They had all afternoon to work on it while I was at work, so no telling what's left out there in the dark now. I'll keep you posted.

New Year, New View

A few days ago, our tree-trimming friends from Arborscapes came and felled the large silver maple that blocked the circle drive we are creating with the new property next door. It had a short base trunk, then split into several fairly straight, tall trunks about a foot in diameter, and a number of smaller trunks.

The view from the house grounds is startling, a glaring gap where once there was a dense screen of branches. It is a bold and disturbing act to cut a large tree, one that someone lovingly hand planted nearly 4 decades ago. But I know that the branches of the remaining trees will close in the gaping canopy in short new order, once the growing season arrives. We will get used to the new look. And that hole may save a life, compared to visitors having to back their cars onto busy North Street as we currently do.

I paced off the tree; 27 paces, compared to the 40' width of the barn which was only 15 paces. 70 feet??? I'll have to measure again, but thinking of the dimensions of garden beds, it's within reason. Laying on the ground, the whole thing looked much bigger than it had when standing. Like the illusion that the rising moon is larger than the moon directly overhead, perhaps? The recumbent tree is quite daunting, in fact, since I'd told the guys to just lay it down and I'd deal with cutting it up into moveable chunks. Now this tree completely blocked vehicle access to the barn, as well as blocking the incipient driveway.

The felled trunks lay in a neat pile, testimony to skilled and careful work. At one end, a pile of logs; at the other end, a cloud of twigs beset with rusty red buds already beginning to swell. Where to begin?

A friend came today, despite the threat of bitterly cold windy weather, and we set to work. She comes to the farm for the exercise, and the machete is one of her favorite workout machines. We spread out a tarp to pile the twiggy, budded branches on. That made it easy to drag them across the crisp snow to the sheep pen. Wise old Eider knew what to do instantly, and tore into the tasty buds. The lambs had to pick and choose, checking to see if they were all the same, jockeying for position before beginning to eat in earnest.

I donned protective gear--a hard hat with attached hearing protectors and face screen--and ran out the cord for the electric chain saw. Checked the blade tension, topped up the bar oil, began cutting the smaller limbs as she freed them from the chaos of twigs.

Only those who have known me a long time will recognize the hugeness of this fairly ordinary act. Though I've burned wood for decades, and spent hundreds if not thousands of hours working in woodlots, I've never run a chain saw before this past week. In fact, up until very recently I've been terrified of the very idea of running one. Yet today, I began the new year with a bold demonstration of a new self-assurance that has been developing rapidly since my return to the farm a little over a year ago. It is a wonderful feeling of freedom, freedom from the ambient fear that limited my life for so many decades.

But this role reersal was a very strange feeling. Here it was ME in the hard hat, bending to set the droning blade against the soft green wood and watch it slide through, showering big flakes of wood in all directions. And someone else was standing back, watching, ready to offer suggestions or warnings if necessary. Always I have been the stand-back-and-watch person, the one taking in the big picture, clearing away tripping hazards as needed, alert for the first motion of the log that might foreshadow a dangerously unpredicted rolling, settling or springing. I knew instinctively that my role was a critical one. But often I was made to feel like a tag-along kid, a potential danger to myself and others, merely tolerated. I "wasn't really doing anything, just standing and watching" while the guys did the "real" work of sawing.

Now I was the sawyer. I was surprised to experience how the protective gear naturally tended to focus my attention singularly on the cut I was making--the saw and the log being sawn. The hat brim limited my upwards vision; the edges of the face shield blocked my side vision; the ear muffs muted any audible distractions from the world around me. I entered into a narrow tunnel vision. As I prepared the cut, I noted with care the tensions on the branch at hand; nearby twigs and limbs that could interfere with the blade; the direction of fall for the cut-off piece relative to my feet; the lay of the extension cord. As I cut, I watched the edges of the cut to see whether they would pinch the blade, watched for formerly unnoticed hazards, made sure the tip of the saw was clear of any obstructions to avoid kickback. But I could not see the butt end of the long log, nor my companion nearby. I realized a deep gratitude for my companion, my watcher-for-unexpected-motion. My ears, since mine were covered. My eyes, since mine were constrained to watch only the blade and the cut.

Later, a friend spoke of her feeling of helplessness in watching her daughter struggle through difficult life situations. She knew that her daughter had to make her own decisions, live her own life, solve her own problems. But how hard for the mother to refrain from meddling! And even if she did offer suggestions and advice, how unlikely that the daughter would be able to hear her mother's wisdom.

It struck me that when we are in the midst of difficult life circumstances, it is like we are running the chain saw. We may block out extraneous input, just as the earmuffs protect my ears not just from the noise of the saw but from distractions. We focus only on the issues immediately before us, unable to see the big picture or the broader ramifications of our actions. We have to have tunnel vision to do the work we need to do in the moment, even if it means having a limited view.

As a parent or friend of someone struggling, we are like the watcher. It is not our role to decide what to do, how to make the cut--unless the sawyer asks us for advice. We can only stand back, watching the big picture, ready to shout if true danger is imminent, available to dial 911 if things get totally out of control. Ready to be there if needed, but to hope to not be needed, and to let things proceed without our control. It is a hard role, to be the watcher. Yet a vital one.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Bird Tree Update--New Year's Day

Yesterday--Day 1--I noticed a few juncos hopping around under the tree. I think they were picking up crumbs from the snow. They seemed to look at the dangling crackers with curiousity, unsure how to approach them.

This morning--Day 2--I watched while tending the morning fire and then an extensive dishwashing session. First came the juncos again. Then I saw two bluejays and a small gang of starlings, mostly hopping around just surveying the situation.

A little later, the starlings had it figured out. They dragged a strand of popcorn loose from the branch, and had it on the ground, where they went after it like chickens over a tasty morsel, or the Border Collies over a contested stick. Tugging, pulling, bullying one another--quite the greedy little hoodlums.

But the jays came back, and the juncos figured out strategic places from which they could reach the crackers when the wind blew. A pair of cardinals worked at popcorn strings still in place on the tree.

Meanwhile, the clemetine peels and popcorn made a bright scene in the shining day, and the crackers twirled merrily around in the wind that came up today.

Hours of enjoyment for the birds and for me. We thank all you diligent decorators who shared a fun afternoon on Sunday! Hope your New Year's Day was as full of delights as ours was!