Saturday, February 28, 2009

"Tree Hugging Dirt Worshipper"--NOT!

Yesterday's Thursday Seminar was a good example of "stream of consciousness"teaching.

EF arrived before JR, and so I was hanging around chatting and watching him fill the front stock tank while we waited--the farm equivalent of the office-worker cliche of "hanging around the water cooler". It had been a busy day, and I hadn't had much time to think up a good topic for the weekly teaching session. But I've learned I can always find something to babble about in great detail for an hour, while demonstrating and then getting others to do some "hands-on" learning (i.e., work).

While I was standing there, I reflected on the tentative nature of some of the wooden posts. That fence is one of our first fence-building efforts, with all wood posts, and they were pre-used treated line posts (that was a BAD idea...always invest in posts you think will outlive you). Some have rotted off completely and are braced by t-posts; some are supported mainly by the woven wire (which is a bit slack). High on the list of fencing priorities...when I can afford some really nice fence wire and do it right in this high-profile area.

In other areas I would worry more about the poor condition of the fence, but here there isn't much on the other side, for the most part. We try (with varying success) to keep the "orchard strip" between the fence and the driveway weeded and mulched so that it isn't obviously greener on the other side of the fence, from the sheep's perspective.

One way to buy some time on this particular fence is to be extra diligent about keeping the ground clear on the outside of the fence. If there isn't anything tasty in reach, the sheep and llama won't try to reach through/over the fence. Such reaching is a significant factor in "livestock pressure", which can cause serious damage to fences and lead to catastrophic failure.

"Livestock pressure" is the fencing equivalent of water pressure in plumbing. The strength of containment needed depends greatly on the amount of pressure it needs to hold. The "livestock pressure" exerted by a flock of sheep can be almost nothing on a fence along a paved area, and something like a killer crowd at a soccer game or Christmas sale if there are tasty treats in reach. During early spring, the pressure can be extreme as the animals try to reach those first few lush blades after a long boring winter of dry hay. Livestock pressure is also higher anywhere animals are confined more densely--a small corral for working sheep needs to be a lot stronger than a pasture subdivision fence.

In building fences, it's important to understand what sort of livestock pressure will be applied in various circumstances. A fence that will easily contain a contented flock of ewes and suckling lambs for rotational grazing may not be strong enough to separate those ewes and lambs for weaning, or to keep the rams separate before breeding season. The goal is to build fences strong enough but not to overbuild...fencing is expensive stuff.

As I stood at the proverbial water cooler, I noticed that there was a distinct line on the ground outside the fence that demarcated the distance the sheep could reach. Looking closer at that line showed that there was a big patch of smooth bromegrass starting to sprout up in the area--grazed on one side of the line, ungrazed where they couldn't reach.

So we started digging up the brome, back well beyond their reach so they would get no reward for pressing harder, and would quit trying. We'll mulch the area along the fence very heavily with wood chips and keep it weeded. This will also make it easier to walk along the fence to check lambs when we start lambing, if we have ewes in this front pen. While we usually lamb mainly in the barn, this pen is often used for segregating ewes needing special feed or other attention.

Weeding out the brome was also a good study in plant morphology. In the garden, brome often grows very densely in the rich soil. Here, heavily shaded and competing with other creeping plants like gill-over-the-ground and Indian strawberry, as well as with numerous trees with thirsty roots, it has long runners between shoots. The shallow roots were easy to pull out.

The soil was in perfect condition for this task--not too wet, not too dry. And at this stage in the spring, the brome's energy flow is UP. The plants are drawing energy out of the roots to push up the new sprouts through the dry mulch of last year's growth. This depletes the roots, and they really are easier to pull up. In a month or so, the brome will start to replenish the nutrient reservoir in its roots, making them fatter and stronger, and it will also start to thrust out new runners on every side. It will be much harder to pull up, and the pieces remaining will resurrect themselves much more easily.

But what about the tree-hugging, you may be wondering.

At the edge of the brome was a particularly annoying clump of saplings. Digging out saplings is another good impromtu lesson. JR hasn't learned all the shovels by name, so EF went with her to fetch the sharpshooter. The catalogs don't call it that, but that's what they are in this region: a short "d" handle on a long, narrow blade good for digging deep holes. I keep the edges as sharp as I can for this exact use: severing saplings just below the soil level, below the junction between the root and the trunk.

Most trees, when severed here, will die. If simply pruned or broken off above the crown, they will probably resprout unless they are conifers.

We had a brief intro to the distinctive features and physics of our favorite loppers (unbreakable, non-splintering,low-maintenance metal handles; anvil blade; lots of leverage for larger branches or roots) and pruners (pocketable "hand extensions" with by-pass blades that can cut, reach, and grab with one hand--Felco #2s and a cheap but identical knock-off). Then we demonstrated on the clump of saplings, just to be able to get to the ground they were growing out of.

Only, on closer inspection, pushing away the drifted leaves, we find that this is actually ONE "sapling" someone (almost certainly me) pruned above ground level many years ago. It has grown to be a stump about 10" in diameter, with sprouts all around the rim, and some of those have been pruned and grown their own rings of sprouts, ad infinitum. A formidable mass, and a great lesson in doing it right the first time and making sure it doesn't regrow...or doing it right the second time...or the third time...instead of just re-pruning it as the stump grows and grows.

We attacked. With something like this, you just have to go at it a little at a time and keep changing your tactics and tools as you go. We pruned everything we could, then started digging around it. When we found roots we could cut with the shovel or loppers, we did so--not just cutting them off the stump, but pulling them back and cutting them a foot or so away from the stump to remove a section. That gave us room to dig some more.

A couple roots were huge--3-4" in diameter. Back to the shed for a bigger tool--the handle on the small ax broke, so we laid into the root with a shingling hatchet: an acceptable and safe use of the "wrong" tool.

Green wood is generally buttery-soft and really kind of fun to chip at with an ax. But it does involve muscles we don't always use a lot. Mid-way, I asked JR if she was ready to go build a log cabin with an ax like the "pioneers". She laughed.

When we finally severed both these large roots, including digging out around them even more, we gave the stump a good thump with a foot. It didn't even budge! Close inspection showed a root going down vertically from one of the root stubs. That's going to take a saw because of the angle...and more digging to make room for the saw...and all of this is just to get CLOSE to the taproot to assess it!

And so it goes.

To be continued....

So when I see the bumpersticker that says "Tree Hugging Dirt Worshipper" I laugh and shake my head. I love trees, I've been hugging trees since I was a kid. Literally. I still do sometimes.

But I am a tree murderer. Mass murderer, in fact. I have the sap of thousands, if not millions, on my soul.

Some trees are just the wrong kind, or the wrong place, or too many (reminds me of some people...). Nothing personal, but they just need to give me some space, and I've got an opposable thumb and I know how to use it. Ditto the saw manufacturer, the ax grinder, etc. who unknowingly aid and abet me.

What gives me the moral right to make those decisions about which trees should live and which should die? Some might say God did, in Genesis. I dunno. Maybe my rights in this are entirely legal and traditional, and not the least bit moral or ethical. I'll never really know whether that was God's very favorite tree or not (at least not in this lifetime). But, I'm human and hopefully if I goofed that's the worst decision I'll ever make. And God knows the other elms are blooming enough to make enough seeds to strangle the whole earth with trees. And this one seems to be in the way of my carrying out what I belive to be a God-given mission to be a wise steward of this fledgeling farm.

Dirt worshipper? No, I don't worship my dirt, I worship its Creator by trying to be a good steward of it.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Creative Urge

It has been so long since I've even read my old poems (let alone added to that immense body of work) that I can't remember which of the thick type-written (as in pre-computer: some even pre-electronic-typewriter!) volumes holds the poem "Midas: Well" which as I recall contains the following lines:

To create,
To be great,
To sing and to celebrate
All that I am,
And can never, be.

I've been reflecting on the subject of creativity in farming while driving the bus through the bright blue shining SPRING day today--the kind of day when all CREATION seems to be surging towards spring, new growth, flowers, nests, a magnificent crescendo of everything pushing back the chill of winter.

Several recent apprentice applicants have offered "creativity" as one of the strengths they would bring to the farm. I press for details, and listen between their words to seek the sense they bring to this word, this image of themselves.

The overall conclusion of my ponderings today: That we really need several different words in order to keep track of what exactly we mean when we say we are "creative."

Creativity is a significant factor in my own life, one of the original seeds from which the farm grew--or evolved--or was created. I often trace the genesis of the farm back to learning to crochet a chain with my fingers when I was very young. That led to more and more advanced crochet, including a blue ribbon at State Fair for a most hideous garment crocheted to technical perfection according to a printed pattern with pastel pink, blue and white variegated acrylic yarn from Wal-Mart. My drive to create more artistic, original, non-functional fiber pieces pushed me into spinning, to acheive more interesting yarn; then I learned to lust for better wool for spinning; and then emerged my desire to raise sheep someday: the beginnings of that treacherous disease known as Ovine Progressive Obsession.

And today I do raise sheep. But I rarely spin, and more rarely knit or crochet; when I do, it's pragmatic things like hats and socks and half-mittens. And I don't think of it as creativity. It's production, plain and simple. And after awhile, it's production, long and boring. I suppose at one time such handwork was therapeutic, but evidently I'm not so in need of therapy now. I'm more inclined to rest, to watch, to engage directly with others rather than sit on the sideline, half-focussed on my handwork.

I was richly nurtured in various arts when I was young; encouraged to draw and paint and create, create, create--to turn my imagination loose upon whatever unsuspecting materials might be at hand. Today, if I draw something, it's most likely a rough sketch of the farm layout, by way of explaining the location of something to an apprentice or Zoning official. Or it's a tool for working out the details of some construction or fabrication project. Very rarely, it's the design for a patchwork hanging to keep cold drafts out of the kitchen, or to veil a window: how best to use the available colors and sizes of old corduroy pants.

I have substantially left the visual arts behind, along with the fiber arts. I still express myself through music, humming at my work until some new hymn invents itself, or a prayer crystallizes into a chant. And I write a lot, but rarely poetry or actual fiction. Though there is a creative aspect to my writing, the goal is education and communication, not gratuituous self-expression or vain advertizement of my talents. These days, my creativity in writing mainly lies in searching out just the right words to convey the mystery and awe of farming and nature to others, to weave the threads of diverse thoughts together into a coherent essay that explicates some of the interdisciplinary nature of my activities.

I'm sure that within me lie a thousand uninked drawings, hours of enchanting music the world will never hear, profoundly moving fiber sculptures. Someday in my older years, when younger generations carry on the great work of the farm, I may return to these pleasures of my youth. But if not, I am very well content to leave those things undone. No one will miss them.

So when an apprentice offers to bring her--for it is invariably a "her"--creativity to the farm, I'm a bit cautious. For many of them, this means she is harboring a similar vision to mine in high school: sitting picturesquely on a cabin porch, lovingly crafting hand-made items that I sell to support myself in quaint rustic fashion. When I ask about their farming goals, they want to press and dry flowers and make gorgeous handcrafted candles and paper and wreaths and.... They want to make beautiful molded soaps. They want to spin and weave and quilt unique one-of-a-kind objects--and do all of this at leisure, for a living.

(I want to insert a disclaimer here. Several of you readers have steam coming out of your ears by now, because how DARE I quote you here in public without your permission. But honest, this is a composite sketch. There are a LOT of you "unique" creative women out there. And I dreamed all this myself, when you yourselves hadn't even been created yet.)

This picture so many paint of themselves and try to live up to is: a) not realistic, especially in today's economy b) not part of the mission or business plan for Pinwheel Farm and c) not something that is going to happen here even as a hobby for a long, long time for any of us, and when it does, I get first dibs because my "creativity" has been in a box on the shelf longer than a lot of yours!

Does that mean I don't value others' creativity, that I won't let them express themselves, that I'm bossy and controlling and stifling? Certainly not!

One of the things I love about farming is how creative it is. But it's a very different kind of creativity. It's not about imagining some fanciful household object and then sitting down and following that mental pattern to bring into being a representation of that image. It's not about replicating some lovely thing seen in a store, that "I could make cheaper myself, and better, and with all-natural materials". It's not about doing something better or different or more clever than anyone else has ever done.

It's a pragmatic creativity, one that only another person attuned to the subtleties of farming would notice. It's the solving of one problem after another. It's the improving of one tool, the novel use of another, the insight that weaves together a cropping system that might only be effective on this particular farm, the puzzling out of an animal health issue, the perfecting of a motion of work that becomes a dance.

It's a response to the real world around me, rather than an expression of an idea or feeling inside me.

It's a making, rather than an imagining.

The great thing about this kind of creativity is that it's self-perpetuating, because its genesis is outside myself. There is no equivalent of "writer's block" because entropy automatically creates new occaisions for this kind of creativity. I look outward, rather than inward, and no matter how empty I am, the world around me is always full, indeed--generally of challenges! I create constantly because I have to rise to the occasion. The problem is there, in front of me, needing solved. It's up to me. Improv, 24-7.

Only the stakes can be really high. This is serious stuff. And sometimes there isn't much time. A true example: The top has blown off the turbine ventilator in the middle of sweltering summer and it's midnight and I wake up to a mighty thunder clap and know that the torrential downpour forecast for tomorrow night is here a day early and it's going to soak the 20" of cellulose insulation in the attic and stain and/or collapse the 1/2" sheet rock ceiling (not to mention the mold that will grow, which I'm allergic to) and there isn't time to think about it too much. So creativity is grabbing a big, heavy canning kettle because it will fit over the stub of the ventilator and probably not blow off, and not break if it does (realizing if I tried to tape plastic over the hole, the tape wouldn't stick in the rain) and go streaking out the door, up the ladder, entirely nude in full view of the entire neighborhood but it's midnight and who would think to look up on our roof during a random lightning flash, anyhow? --And what would be the point of putting clothes on because they will just be drenched by the time I get down, and the insulation would be drenchedif I took the time to get dressed first....

The creativity that's welcome here is the one willing to lend itself gladly to this group effort, colloquially known to us humans as Pinwheel Farm, whether for a day or a year or a lifetime. It's a creativity that doesn't creave acclaim, that's happy just to have solved the problem. Oh, there will be opportunities to have the fun of making felt balls and dying silk scarves, but for the most part it will be a long time before we can afford the frivolity of pressed flowers in our soap. For the right person, the person who will truly love being here and love farming enough to be a success at it, the satisfactions of those little fleeting efforts at self-expression and manufacturing will seem small indeed compared to the deep contentment of perfecting a method of planting a bed of vegetables with efficient specialty tools made by one's own hands out of stuff that was about to be thrown away.

Are you creative enough to recognize this kind of creativity? Does it draw you into a passionate pursuit of the practical? It's a creativity the color of baling twine (the 12,345th uniquely original use thereof) and bent paperclips, the shape of duct tape (did you know it cures warts? My doctor offered to show me the medical journal article) and tallow, the smell of wd-40 and wood chips and plastic barrels being sawn...

...the sound of the gears turning in our heads night and day, non-stop.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Seeing the Trees in the Forest

It did not particularly surprise me when I asked a rather young and bookish apprentice if he knew the names of trees. We devoted a Thursday seminar when no one else showed up to looking at the few varieties that make up Ember Woods by the Brown Barn: silver maple, locust, hackberry, elm. We compared the bark, the silhouettes, the look and weight of the split logs in the woodpile as well as the towering being overhead.

Yesterday as I worked with an older apprentice with more science background, I blithely rattled on about the varous trees that were beginning to show signs of spring. After a little while I noticed her increasingly tenuous understanding of my words. And I realized that she, too, does not know the trees by name.

And I realized that though this body of knowledge seems like kindergarten stuff to me, it's because my "preschool teacher" was a mom who studied Botany in college and read field guides to us instead of bedtime stories. When we went for a walk, it was a narrated nature walk, not just a way of getting somewhere. I learned my trees (and birds, and rocks, and flowers...) right along with learning my colors.

And most everyone else doesn't learn that body of information in that way. Which is sad. Because we certainly could, given half a chance. At that age we are such thirsty sponges, with such boundless capacity before puberty fills up any extra space with worries about what all the other kids are wearing and how big that pimple is and what she said he said she said somebody said about me.

(Maybe my brain was too full of the names of trees to store all the social secrets that would have kept me out of trouble with my peers.....)

I joke, sometimes, about having to teach apprentices how to operate a tape measure. But it's like that in so many, many areas of farming. There is simply so much to know. Apprentices come to me expecting to learn to farm in a year, four hours a week. It has taken me 50 years to learn what I know, and I need to know so much more than I do, and I am studying every minute of every day in some way or another!

In times past, more folks knew these things. How rapidly we are losing this precious knowledge base! And we are only barely beginning--just a few of us--to even realize it exists and has value. Will we be in time to save it, to pass it on to the next generation?

I see my mission of teaching on the farm with renewed fervor. A whole new to-do list opens before me, starting with name tags for the trees. But it's more than names. It's when do they bud and when do they bloom; it's the language of their leaves in the wind, showing a storm brewing. It's their season for sowing millions of seeds in the garden, to be picked out of the salad greens at harvest, and sprouting into forests in the garden and gutters. Which leaves make the best mulch for planting, or for killing bromegrass? What time does it take for their wood to cure for the stove? I need to know the ease with which it splits, the way its bark will rot and fall off as it ages in the wood pile, the tone of the firewood when green or cured. How many cords of this or that is needed to warm our winter? What log to use for the late autumn fire, for the fire in the depth of winter? What twigs snap easily for kindling, and which frustrate us with their stringy toughness? What mushrooms will grow, what bugs will come to this species in death or in life? Do the sheep like the late-winter twigs, the summer clippings, the fresh-fallen autumn leaves--or are they deadly like yew branches or cherry prunings?

I love these trees almost as much as my soil. Well, I suppose the trees are really just another incarnation of the soil. I have learned to know them for even longer than I've had the farm, through their kin.

Can I sow that love in another's heart? Can I grow that knowing?

A Song for the Soil

It was a special weekend: the Country Dance and Song Society had their Board Meeting here in Lawrence, in conjunction with our local monthly Barn Dance. This dance and music community was once the foundation of my life; now it's a fleeting peripheral pleasure as the farm enfolds me in its own complicated and demanding dance. To celebrate and make our guests welcome, the weekend was full of dances, potlucks, an extra Shape Note sing for the month. Several out-of-town visitors stayed at the farm. It was a worthwhile challenge to waltz my way through the complicated commitments of my usual life and find time to join in the various events.

At the potluck on Saturday night, I found myself once again singing the praises of this soil I'm married to: Eudora. Not the high-spirited black and white ewe, Ewedora, but Eudora silt loam, the official name of the soil that IS the farm.

How do I love my soil? Let me count the ways...

It does not shrink and swell as it bakes in the sun and drowns in the torrents of Kansas storms; it does not press on the foundation walls of the house and crush them slowly into collapse.

It does not stick to shoes or tools when it's wet, at least not with the maddening cling of clay.

It drains so well that it lets me work it within hours of a hard rain, yet holds ample moisture far into the edge of a drought.

It has no stones to clink on my shovel or thwart the driving of posts.

It is so deep I have never dug to the bottom of it--not even in digging the entire 9' depth of the test hole for the privy.

It wicks up water through capillary action from the Kansas River flowing 17 to 20 feet beneath it.

It is rich and fertile and light, so easy to dig to pull weeds to push plants and seeds into its welcome....

Yes, I love this particular soil far beyond any I've ever met--a love that grew quickly at first, and has deepened as deep as the soil itself over the years. This soil anchors my life, gives me both purpose and subsistence, both work and pleasure.

On Sunday, I stopped by the dance after Shape Note singing, but couldn't stay. A rich earthy voice called me home to the farm. I couldn't ignore it. The weekend of dancing went on without me: it was a balmy late winter afternoon with just enough cool edge to the air that vigorous work was necessary to keep warm. Digging out a few lingering patches of bromegrass from the garden filled the bill nicely.

Oh, the good feel of dirt under my fingernails, caking my hands! How rich and black the soil is in this bed that has been thickly blanketed in nourishing organic mulch every year for more than 10 years! How alive it is with worms and bugs; though I can't see them, I know it teems with smaller creatures of all kingdoms (animal, vegetable, fungus, bacteria), including the unseen seeds of so many favorite weeds, ready to thrust themselves into the season. Weeding the cilantro under its protective winter cover, I find tiny veronica flowers blooming, minty-tasting henbit beginning to show pink at the tips. Between the lush, pungent cilantro leaves, cheat grass sends up its threads of green that, unchecked, will choke out the herbs.

Tonight's writing is so much more than than a distraction from assembling tax records. It is my own voice warbling along with the robins' song heralding spring. It is my own limbs dancing with the willows (twigs ever so faintly glowing greener) and the silver maples (swelling red bud-clusters beginning to push out delicate stamens) and the Siberian elms (smaller flowerbuds studding each twig like brown beads).

The process for digging brome out of the garden is this: First rake the dry leaves and mulch and dead grass from the clump with the tips of the spading fork (one of my favorite tools ever--gleaming, glorious stainless steel), exposing the edges of the spreading clump of greening shoots. Then use the fork like a cake breaker to divide the aggressive grass into chunks less than a foot in diameter. Since they will be be about 6-10 inches deep--the depth of the sod of roots binding the dirt beneath the grass clump--anything larger is too heavy to lift easily. After all is broken loose, I set the fork upright in the ground (so I'll be able to find it again) a short distance away and take up a trowel. I lift a clod, methodically beat the extra dirt out of it until only slightly muddy rhizomes and runners and roots are left, put them in a bucket to throw in the sheep pen, lift another clump.

The words and visual/aural memory of a Morris dance I saw performed many, many years ago always haunt me at this task, a sung dance about coal mining in England: "I can hew, boys, I can hack it out..." and there the words fade in my memory but the rhythmic pounding of the dancers' sticks echoes on.

I always wish a day like this will last forever! I worked until dusk, when the chilly night air suddenly froze the remnants of dirt on the tines of the spading fork. And when I stand, put the tools away, walk to the house--I find I must humbly confess that it is a good thing that dusk comes early in beginning spring, so that my body can gradually adjust to the new demands after a more sedentary winter. As the days lengthen, my body will strengthen with them.

Monday, February 23, 2009

A Good Wife

"A good wife who can find?
She is far more precious than jewels.
She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands.
She is like the ships of the merchants, she brings her food from afar.
She rises while it is yet night and provides food for her household and tasks for her maidens.
She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.
She girds her loins with strength and makes her arms strong.
She perceives that her merchandise is profitable.
Her lamp does not go out at night.
She puts her hand to the distaff and her hands hold the spindle.
She opens her hand to the poor, and reaches out her hands to the needy.
She is not afraid of snow for her household for all her household are clothed in scarlet.
She makes herself coverings; her clothing is fine linen and purple.
Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come.
She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat of the bread of idleness.
Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
Give her of the fruits of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates."

Proverbs 31:10-31

Memory fails me: I don't recall whether it was my now-estranged best friend, or my fiance's ex-lover who brought that scripture to my attention for our wedding. It was an instant favorite for me, though I had no idea that within a couple years I would actually "consider a field and buy it". Even before that came to pass, there were so many lines that resonated with me. The spinning, the purple clothing, the lamp not going out at night...the overall picture of industry, generosity, responsibility.

We thought it odd that there was no apparent counterpart scripture enumerating the virtues of a good husband, which would have been a nice balance for the readings on that occasion.

But how ironic! In the long run, the marriage that endured was the marriage between the "good wife" and the field she bought. Or perhaps more than that, a marriage of self with self, the "farm wife" wed to a "husband" who is not a bearded stranger, but herself, the "husband" in "animal husbandry"...the shepherd, the keeper of the flock and the sheepfold. (Even this self-husband is a bit of a stranger to me-wife, as I-the-husband venture further and further into skills that me-the-wife would never have dared, such as any tool powered by gasoline or electricity).

Thus I find now, far too late for that ill-fated wedding, the scriptures that spell out the virtures of the husbandman: the many descriptions of the good shepherd tending to his flock, searching them out when lost, defending them from predators, establishing the deep knowing and trust of his sheep.

Without trying, I find I have conformed myself more and more to the description of the "good wife"--yet more and more, I am both the woman and the man in this odd parody of a traditional life. I wear the woman's covering without the dress and apron--how terribly dangerous they'd be climbing over fences, wielding a chain saw, scaling the tall ladder to the top of the barn to fix the roof in a storm, swinging the scythe in a sharp breeze, driving the bus for a living. For all these things and more, I need to wear the pants. But the covering keeps my hair clean and contained as I push around hay bales and work in the wind.

This marriage of one does not liberate me from the need to continually compromise. There are surely as many compromises as in a marriage of two. They are simply different compromises--in this strange marriage of one, it's the kind of compromises that come with playing all the parts in a play: everything is sequential, I can't be in two places at once. The work of both farm wife and husband suffer--the Burger King cooks supper too often, and both house and workshop are in perpetual--yet everchanging--disarray and disrepair. The ends of my life do not meet, but it's a merry chase most the time. The Good Wife thrives on busy-ness.

Most the time.

In a marriage of one with oneself, there is no second pair of hands to wrangle a board into place, no one to give a second opinion on the herbs in the stew, no one to bounce decisions off of, to brainstorm and elegant solution to a technical dilemma. No wisdom or experience beyond my own to bring to bear on the relentless stream of decisions--large and small--required to keep this Pinwheel "going around in circles". Oh, I know I'm not alone--God's with me through thick and thin--but He just doesn't hold both ends of the tape measure, or start the bread in the bread machine while I feed the sheep.

No one to argue with? Somehow it seems more effective to argue with myself than to reason things out with myself. Probably because arguing is never very effective anyhow, so what's the difference?

In the long run, the hardest thing for me in this marriage of one is the empty end of the day, when the wonderful weekend guests have left and the apprentice has gone home to her husband, my absentee housemate has crawled into the alternative reality of his headphones, and there are no other ears than my own to listen to (and understand--that rules out the dog) a litany of little triumphs, accomplishments and observations of no real consequence to anyone outside this strangely foreign land where I live:

"I finished weeding the cilantro bed to day--how good to feel dirt under my nails again--I saw a nightcrawler curled under the deep mulch--the last of the bromegrass is gone from where the old tarp shed was--I thought of the friend whose garden plot used to be there, will his onions come up yet again there after so many years?--the elms are blooming, and soon the silver maple--"

I'm interviewing apprentices for this coming season, several who've expressed a desire to live here and learn something of the art of farming in return for their youthful energy. An intern for a single season isn't quite the same as a longterm help-meet, doesn't know the stories behind each little achievement, doesn't have the same commitment to the things that we do when we "farm for next season" instead of doing it quick-and-dirty-good-enough-for-now. But it will still be nice to have someone around that, when they go home at the end of the day, is just in the next room.

I do truly love this life God has given me. I do my best to be a good wife, and a good husbandman-shepherd, as I am able. I look to His scriptures for guidance, in my own quirky way (another area in which I crave companionship that seems not to be my lot in life). But when He said, "It is not good for the man to be alone", I think this is true for the helper He created, as well.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Obituary for Ambrosius

"Teach me the measure of my days,
Thou Maker of my frame;
I would survey life's narrow space
And learn how frail I am.

A span is all that we can boast,
An inch or two of time;
We are but vanity and dust
In all our flower and prime." *

A small cat with a big presence proved to be a truly magnificent yardstick by which I will ever measure my own life's narrow space.

The remarkable and beloved Ambrosius (fondly called "Bro" for short, and truly a spiritual brother to me in some dimension that transcends words or bodily form) died this morning, the blessing of euthanization ending a gradual, dignified process of dying. I can think of no ultimate goal in my personal life more worthy than dying as gracefully as he did.

If you have not read his biography, check out

Here is the story of his dying.

Except I don't know where to begin. Hindsight is, as so often said, 20-20.

Last Tuesday night, when I was getting ready for bed, I found him laying in a pool of urine in the bathroom, green goo running from his nose. I picked him up, dried him off, and he seemed to be pretty much his normal self again. But, the green goo and urine clearly indicated a problem, and I gave him a strengthening treat of tunafish. Obviously, he was sick enough to require a trip to the vet in the morning. And suddenly a veil was lifted from my eyes, and I realized that so many little things I'd thoughtlessly rationalized away were actually pieces of a terrible puzzle.

His eyes had recently tended more than usual to have crusty "eye boogers"--but everyone's eyes have been a bit crusty with the dry heat of the wood stove in the extreme cold weather we'd been having?

He'd been spending a lot of time hunched on the footstool in front of the woodstove--but haven't we all been huddling near there for warmth a lot lately? When I threw him outside, I usually saw him curled on a pile of fleeces in the barn, not out hunting--but what intelligent mouse would venture forth in broad daylight in this bitter cold weather, when it could be safe among the bales of hay in the solar barn?

His fur had been looking a bit ragged, not quite as smooth and fluffy as its usual winter glory--but wasn't that just ordinary wintery static electricity? And the fine fur was uncharacteristically developing little mats all over his body. (I realized later that at some point I had not noticed, he had ceased to groom himself.)

A friend had lifted him up and exclaimed about how light he felt, and I'd noticed he was bonier than usual--weren't we all losing a few pounds as the winter wore on?

His food dish outside was never empty, and when I sat him out there he would sniff at the food and then turn and follow me around the farm--obviously he was getting enough to eat so he wasn't hungry. I didn't have to fill it as often as usual, but then I'd also given my new housemate permission to fill it at will, so I didn't really know how much was being consumed, or not.

He had been urinating in the house with increasing frequency--but wasn't that just his disgust with not being able to dig a decent hole in the frozen dirt outside, coupled with housemates who would let him in and forget to put him out often enough? He did, at least, go to creative extremes to minimize the damage--it certainly wasn't malicious or territorial marking. On more than one occasion, he somehow managed to perch on waste baskets in order to "go" on piles of toilet tissue that we put in the trash rather than the slop buckets destined for the outhouse during the bahtroom remodelling. A paint roller pan evidently looked a lot like a cat box (which he's never had, unless the tenants had one for him during my sabbatical), as did a dish tub full of old bills under my desk, and an unused cardboard box. One time he used a piece of newspaper spread to protect the floor from paint during the bathroom remodelling. He even perched on the rim of a dishpan with an inch of water in it, remnant of thawing a water bucket in the entry way, and fouled the water...if ever there were cats that could have been trained to use the toilet, he was one.

Suddenly I realized that he had gradually lost his appetite a long time earlier, and had at the minimum an upper respiratory infection, and was urinating in the house because of illness.

I thought about his appearance on New Year's Day, when he came into the house in the morning with all the fur on his neck in stiff little spikes. I had joked that he had spend New Year's Eve with a couple of little girls and a bottle of hair-styling mousse...but perhaps it was something more toxic.

I also remembered the extended period of car trouble involving leaking antifreeze during the snow and ice and thaws. I know how deadly it is to cats, but it was leaking onto the gravel so there wasn't much I could do, and it seemed to soak in. But it could have run off into the meltwater puddles he sometimes drank from.

Anyhow, obviously the "next indicated thing" was to take him to the vet first thing on Wednesday morning. They drew blood, put him on antibiotics for the respiratory infection, gave him a dose of sub-cutaneous fluids, and recommended tempting him with canned cat food since his gums seemed inflamed. Moist food would help his dehydration, as well. I stopped by the store and spent an hour deciphering labels on kitty litter (that'll be a whole 'nother blog entry...) and canned cat food, preparing to play cat nurse for a few days. I tempted him with cream and 9-lives, which he ate gingerly.

But Wednesday night, nothing I tried to feed him could tempt him. Not the canned cat food, not the tuna. He would lap the tuna juice or the cat food broth a little, but not eat the solids, even though he seemed interested in the fragrance. Remembering a bout I'd had with infected gums myself, long ago, I thought perhaps his mouth was too much pain for him to eat, so I mashed every tempting meat-like substance I could think of into nourishing gruels...he merely sniffed at them.

I took him back to the vet on Thursday. The test results were back, and they were grim. They indicated at most 25% kidney function...and that was for blood drawn more than 24 hours earlier, before his significant overnight decline.

The vet offered several options, beginning with keeping him in the animal hospital a few days to rehydrate him and see if that would help flush out his system and bring the blood chemistry into a better balance. A mere $300-$400. "No", I said matter-of-factly, with no bitterness or despair. "He's dying; what's the point?" She looked me in the eye and I saw her sudden rememberance that I'm a "farm girl". "Or", she said with a glimmer of hope and encouragement (relief, I suspect, at realizing she would not have to deal with a hysterical, irrational, grief-stricken, handwringing pet mom), "I can show you how to give the sub-q fluids, it's not that hard. You can do it for him." And a couple minutes later I had learned the rudiments of a new skill. She gave me measured doses of a painkiller to see if that might ease any oral discomfort enough to encourage him to eat.

I have watched enough sheep die this summer to recognize that point at which the balance has irrevokably tipped towards death. And I understood at that point that my role had changed from attempting to heal to assisting to die. And somehow I understood at that moment that this new role was perhaps more important than any other, that it would be a profound blessing and gift in my life from this day forward.
We quickly settled into a schedule for his treatments. It was clear after the first day that his downward spiral would not reverse itself even with this regimen; he ceased all interest in food or water except for rare sips from the dogs' rather scummy water bucket in the entryway.

So this weekend was a time of leave-taking, of saying goodbye, of learning final wisdom from this beautiful creature about how to die with dignity. A gentle, peaceful time of letting go little by little. Of course, with his long history of extended "walkabouts" and "going missing", imagining the farm without him isn't that hard; I've relinquished him to his fate time and time again over the years.

My daughter and her family spent an evening with us, stroking him and taking pictures (I'll post a few when I get them) while he rested in his characteristic pose on my left shoulder. He seemed to bask in the attention. Other longtime friends were invited to visit if they so desired. Apprentice EF paid his respects.

He spent nearly every moment resting quietly in the classic "meatloaf" position: haunches symmetrical, tail curled around, front paws folded under, head erect, ears perked forward. He seemed relaxed and interested in what was going on around him, if somewhat uninvolved. Mostly he hung out in the bathroom where I'd found him that first night. We had house guests the first couple days, so during the day and night, when I wasn't home, I'd close him in there with all his tempting dishes of food, the cat box, etc. I'd run the shower for awhile to humidify the room and ease his breathing...the antibiotics did seem to clear up the green goo situation, and he was breathing much better until the very end.

When I was home and the door was open, sometimes he would come hang out in the kitchen on the mat by the sink, again in meatloaf position. I would move his dishes near him. Toss figured out very quickly to leave the tempting goodies alone until they were judged "not fresh" and used to dress her plain dry food. In the end, when the guests had gone and my housemate had left on a trip, Toss spent the day home alone with the cat and his food, and never bothered it. She liked to lay where she could see him in the bathroom, even though it meant laying her aging bones on the hard wood floor instead of the soft rug.

Friday night, it became clear he wouldn't eat again, and I stopped trying to tempt him. I consulted with the vet Saturday morning, and we decided to stop the antibiotics and painkiller. I would save the remaining doses of painkiller in case he was clearly in pain near the end.

The texture of my days remained largely the same as ever. I attended my scheduled workshifts and special events, giving each my full attention. The regular activities of his routine care, random moments of checking on him and exchanging the squints that telegraph "I love you" between cat and caregiver--these were enough for both of us. No hovering, no smothering.

Each night I would work at the computer until about midnight, as usual. Then I would fetch him for his fluids. The old IV pole I've had for years was used mainly to hold a kerosene lamp out in the woodlot for midnight firewood-sawing sessions in past years; the adjusting screw had rusted firmly with the height at its maximum of nearly 8 feet. So treatments were given in the entryway--the only room of the house with 8' ceilings--perched on a couple of 5-gallon buckets so that the tubing would reach him in my arms. He clearly didn't care for the treatments, but would resign himself to firm restraint.

After the treatment, we would retire to the living room, where I'd feed the fire for the night. We'd sit in the "comfy chair" and watch the flames curl around the logs, and sit. And sit. No purrs now, but a deep communion of sorts. Love. Now and then a tear--but of joy, of gratitude for all this remarkable cat has enriched my life through the 9 or so years I've had him (How old is he? Hmmm...farming has interfered with my journalling of events, so I don't recall when I got him. Except it was while R. had the horses down the street. And that was when I had Jasmine the pony. And I'd gotten Jas for my 40th birthday, "giving myself a happy childhood". And my 50th was last he must be 9 or 10.)

Saturday night, I started our usual routine. But he wasn't lying in the bathroom. I looked in the kitchen, thinking I'd distractedly managed to walk past him without seeing him on the mat. No, he wasn't there either. Maybe getting a sip of water from the dog bucket in the entry? No. Crawled off into some corner to die? I searched the entire house, every conceivable hiding place. Nothing.

I repeated the entire search sequence. Twice more, each time more thoroughly, checking smaller and more unlikely places. Still no cat. I was beginning to believe in miracles. "Cat-saint Ambrosius miraculously ascends to Heaven, leaving astonished owner." (The day had begun with attending a Catholic baptism, prompting reflections on saints in general.) I was debating who to call at midnght (by now nearly 1 a.m.) for assistance and consultation. The sherriff? The local crisis hotline? Yeah, and get labeled a raving lunatic. Cats just don't vanish through closed doors.

Eventually I looked one more time in the kitchen cabinet whose door often didn't quite close. There in the furthest darkest corner was Ambrosius in meatloaf position, looking at me with a level stare.

He had clearly decided he did not want the sub-q treatments. Period.

OK, Cat, you win. It's your death, have it your way.

Now what? We're in a stand-off. It seems like not a very good idea, in the long run interest of the household, for him to just curl up and die in the kitchen cupboard, in case there might be a release of bodily fluids in the process. But I also didn't want to disrespect him by grabbing him and dragging him out, either...I could barely reach him even to touch his nose, and I knew from the experience of giving him the antibiotic tablets that he still had a good set of claws and knew how to use them.

I pulled my head out of the cabinet and closed my eyes in thought and prayer. "OK, God, I get it that he doesn't want the treatment. Bro, I'll honor your wish. But God, I don't want to leave him in the cabinet, and I need to get some sleep for driving the bus tomorrow!" After a few moments, I opened my eyes and stuck my head back in the cabinet. No cat! Dazed, I withdrew my head and turned around. He was sitting behind me on the mat as calmly as if he had never been in the cabinet. In those few seconds, he had somehow soundlessly emerged from the cabinet full of noisy stainless steel bowls and passed through a space about 4 inches wide between my body and the cabinet door.

We retired to the fireside for our evening meditation without the treatment...a relief, a simplification of both our lives. When I grew drowsy, I laid him on the bed quilt and crawled under him. So many times in my own grief or illness, through the years, he had comforted me by resting serenely on my stomach as I lay in bed. Now the position was the same, but it was he who was ill. A while later I realized that he had noiselessly left the high bed, and returned to his post in the bathroom.

Sunday passed in the familiar rhythm, emptier with neither food-tempting nor pill-administering nor fluid-injecting. A comfortable emptiness. The sense of profound waiting for death gathered about the house, the deeply spiritual "gathering" of a Quaker meeting. The unmistakable certainty of God in everyone present. Coincidentally, this was the weekend that none of my Sunday apprentices were in town, so we were only three old friends (me, Toss, and Bro) gathered to witness one friend's final slow journey into the unknown.

God had also arranged for this to be the weekend that the Shape-Note Singing met, so I made a pilgrimage across town to sing the archaic, solemn harmonies woven with imagery of pre-penicillin Christian life--which is to say, a fascination with death, dying, and the afterlife as a release from the toils and sorrows of life before the Industrial Revolution. Last month, and the precious January as well, the monthly Sing had been held at the farm, graced by Ambrosius's presence, so the gathered singers (only the staunchest were not somewhere else attending to Superbowl traditions) offered tender understanding of my impending loss. In Shape Note culture, there lingers a tradition of "singing the dying over" into the life beyond this one, and it seemed as if in some way we were doing that at a distance of across town.

After the singing, the day was still warm for the first of February. I gathered Bro to my shoulder, as he so loved, and we took a slow tour of the farm, his last survey of his kingdom. I left him lay on the hay in the sunny solar barn while I ran te water for the north sheep pen, and when I came back he was gone. This time he had melted through several cattle panel pen dividers to rest contentedly in a bed of fresh hay outside the barn, basking in the sun. But when I approached, he looked up as if to say, "Is it time?" and willingly rode my shoulder back to the house. I have never before been so conscious of the unevenness of the frozen, mole-mounded yard, but my jarring steps did not seem to discomfort him.

As the evening drew on, I could tell that he was drawing nearer to death, though I couldn't put my finger on any particular sign. But by the time for our nightly fireside communion, he had begun to vocalize softly now and then, a faintly querelous voice of discomfort and uncertainty. It seemed as if things had reached a point where he was not sure how to proceed. I gave him a dose of painkiller, though I hated to force it on him, and the discomfort seemed to lessen after awhile. But he was restless now, not able to sustain his usual melding into my shoulder. He lay in my arms on my slouched stomach, and I noticed that we fell into synchronous breathing, mine relaxed and deep, his slightly laboring and attentuated in a way that witnessed to his fragile hold on life.
I took him to bed again, and that seemed easier for him for awhile. Again, he had the strength to move from the bed to the nearby bench and then to the floor, soundlessly. I slept peacefully, knowing I had a duty to perform for him in the morning and a bus to drive in the afternoon.

I woke to discomforted vocalizing at about 5:30 (as I'd awakened the previous night at that time), and gave the last dose of painkiller.

I set the alarm for 8 a.m. when the vet would be in, and called for an appointment when it rang. We were scheduled for 10:45 a.m. I ate my usual breakfast and did the farm chores. We sat by the fire again, and this time his breathing was slower than mine. I thought any breath could be his last, and in a small way thought this would be fitting. But there was no hesitation or regret when I rose from the chair at the appointed time and placed him once again in the picnic basket that I'd been using as a cat carrier for him.

Tears, yes, of course tears as I gently pulled his frail form from the basket in the exam room. He took a few hesitating steps around the now-familiar counter. The vet brought the simple necessities: a towel to lay him on, clippers to bare the skin over a vein, the syringe. He did not resist our fussing, and as I stroked him the merciful fluid eased him through the passage he had been searching for all night. I could not see the transition between his intermittant breaths and no breath at all, nor feel the ceasing of his heart or the fading of his spirit. But the vet check his heart, and nodded to me that it was done.

Tenderly into the basket for the ride home, a beloved empty husk. A plastic bag, a box, the freezer where I store things not for human consumption.

In time the earth that gave him life in the form of so many mouse dinners will yield its implacable winter cold, and he'll be laid in honor beneath the west end of the Torii. Only the very most special animal friends lie under this gate to the spirit realm; the more commonplace ones and the criminals (Bartok, sentenced to death though he was only a few healthy years old because of repeated random sudden blood-drawing unprovoked biting) lie nearby between the willows.

His companionship throughout his life has been one of my greatest blessings. To share so intimately in his dying was the greatest honor and gift of all. I will never be the same. And he will never be forgotten.

Amen. But not "here endeth the lesson", for Ambrosius's lesson will never really end.

*#485 from the Mennonite "blue hymnal"--by Isaac Watts, based on Psalm 39.