Monday, March 30, 2009

Postscript: Girls at War

I haven't really tried to figure out who won. As a matter of fact, I forgot about the really doesn't make a lot of difference who the matriarch is, for my work.

But maybe it does.

And maybe the girls settled the question in an unusual way.

When I ran the main flock of ewes up to the front pen, so that I could examine and treat Taylor without having the rest of the flock trying to "help" me, they all ran willingly up to the front pen, where I'd just unwrapped a fresh bale of alfalfa. That is, all but two.

Perfle and Faith BOTH stayed behind in the barn, standing near Taylor, clearly concerned about the situation. I tried to drive them off, but they kept circling back around to Taylor, and standing there with their noses a few inches apart, near the ground, a few feet away from her.

I'd love to know what they were thinking. Were they offering encouragement? Saying good-bye? Trying to diagnose her? Giving her Reiki treatments? I wouldn't put it past sheep to have a highly evolved system of energy-based healing arts.

When they both turned and gave me a level stare, in unison, (actually almost a glare) after our third lap around the pen, I gave up for the time being, and walked away for a few minutes. When I returned, they had run up to the front pen to join the rest of the flock.

I wonder whether they have settled down to be President and Vice-president working together as a team, or are they equal co-clerks in a more egalitarian society? At any rate, it was interesting that these two apparent leaders were the ones that turned back to aid the fallen ewe.

Ewe Turn

Warning: This story contains graphic details about NEEDLES. Read at your own risk if you are squeamish about shots. But it has a happy ending.

On Friday night, when a nasty winter storm was coming in, I tucked all the ewes into the barn for the night and threw them a bunch of hay (bravo for my apprentice E. for thinking to haul a bunch over from the other barn before the storm!). More hay, water, etc. on Sat. as I dashed off to work in the freezing rain, and again when I got home Sat. night after driving the bus for 8 hours in every nuance and shade of "wintery mix" (as the NOAA weather website so aptly calls it).

The barn is really the snuggest and driest it's ever been right now. It's wonderful. The roof shed nearly all the ice that accummulated, rather than ponding and pulling at the tarps and threatening the whole structure as it has in the past.

And with the ewes all shorn, there's plenty of room for them to spare. Which is good, because in a couple weeks there will be a LOT more sheep here as our twins, triplets, etc. arrive.

Everything was going so smoothly. Too smoothly, I guess.

When I went out Sunday morning to feed, the silvery grey Lincoln cross ewe I call Taylor (a.k.a. Tailor; we've never regularized the spelling of the spoken name. The point is, she has a long tail) was lying down. And she didn't stand up when I grabbed a bale of alfalfa. She didn't even stand when the other sheep ran over her to get to the hay.

She just lay there, looking dully off into space. The word "moribund" came to mind: on the road to death.

A "down" ewe is a serious situation. Sheep aren't designed, internally, to lay down for long stretches of time. They just don't do it, unless something is wrong. If they do it for very long, just being down can kill them.

I hurried into the pen and examined her quickly. No particular sign of anything amiss--no blood, no tangled twine, no swelling (other than her belly, distended with probably twins or triplets). But she didn't even try to stand when I pulled and pushed. On her brisket, head erect, staring into space. Not rigid, not limp. Ears pleasantly, normally cool (hot ears indicates probably fever and therefore infection). Not interested in food, not even alfalfa pellets. Not interested in water when I brought her some. Not dried molasses, not mineral. Nothing.

I gave her a dose of Nutri-Drench, which provides quick energy and vitamins and minerals. She reluctantly swallowed it, but didn't try to lick the extra off her lips. It's sweet, so they usually like it. Nothing.

I went in and read the books. Two possibilities stood out--two situations I've dealt with before, long ago: ketosis (pregnancy toxemia) and hypocalcemia (milk fever). They are not easy to diagnose, can resemble each other, and may occur together or sequentially.

For better or for worse, I decided to just continue on my way to church, and see what things looked like in a couple hours. Maybe it would be more clear, or maybe she would just magically recover.

When I checked her later, her hind legs were pushed out behind her somewhat...a classic sign of hypocalcemia. And with her freshly shorn wool, I could see the tiny quiverings of the muscles of her rump. She was visibly much worse, declining before my very eyes. Our previous hypocalcemia case had't been this bad...and I'd relied on the vet to sort it out and treat it.

But today was Sunday, the most expensive day for a farm visit. And this time I actually had the treatment on hand--calcium gluconate solution. I called the vet to get the directions and dosage for her, and he actually called back in less than 5 minutes (my REGULAR vet, one reason why he's my regular vet).

He didn't argue with my diagnosis. That both made me feel good (that he trusted me, and that I'd read the symptoms correctly) and scared me (she really WAS going to die without treatment). He prescribed 150-200 cc of the solution, intraperitoneally.

ACK! I've only done sub-cutaneous and intramuscular injections. This had to go right into her abdomen, with a 2 inch needle. Which I didn't have. "Push hard on the 1 1/2" one, dimple it right into her hide, and it should be ok," he said. And he told me where to make the injection, in her left flank.

And then I was on my own, to stab this long needle right into the vicinity of guts and lambs and everything else in there, and hope it went in the right place and didn't kill her. And of course with her laying down (and liable to stay that way until she decided otherwise...she weighs 200 lbs.), her abdomen bulged large on both sides, obscuring the hollow that would be easy to find if she were standing.

Well, she was already dying--worse even while I was on the phone--so at least it was a chance.

The worst thing was that the largest syringe I had that would take a needle (the others were catheter tip lamb tubing syringes, and the one with a special metal nozzle for drenching with wormers) was only 12 cc. So I had to inject her not just once but 14 or 15 times to deliver the full dose. (Shopping list: 2" needles; big syringes with Luer lock tips; new bottle of calcium gluconate).

Then all there was to do was wait and see what happened. If my diagnosis was correct, and I got the injections in the right place, she would revive quickly. If not, she would continue on her moribund path.

I checked and gardened, gardened and checked. And little by little she did improve. She nosed at her hay. She licked her lips. She looked at me, instead of off into space. More waiting, not getting much done in the garden because for once it really IS too muddy to work, even though the ice has entirely thawed and it's a gorgeous spring day.

By late afternoon, she was up on her feet again. Letting the other two ewes that were in another pen in the barn go outside was the final motivator. Often when nothing else will get a sheep to move, the sight of all flockmates going around the corner will do the job. She clumsily thrust herself to her feet and staggered a bit, unsteady. She took a few wobbly steps, and I thought she would fall, but she regained her balance. She squatted and peed! Within a few minutes, she was eating hay and moving around the pen normally.

Her condition continues to improve, and she's clearly made a U-turn and is going the "wrong way" on the road to death. (Sorry, I just couldn't resist the sheep pun!)

So why the sudden bout of hypocalcemia? When it happens pre-lambing, it's often because of sudden weather changes or other stress. We certainly had the weather changes, but then there was also the dog harrassment episode a couple weeks ago, then shearing, then moving into the barn, the awful noise the storm must have created on the tarp-and-plastic roof, the change in hay quality, the friend's dog that's visiting for a week...many little stresses. And we won't know until she lambs how many she's carrying--more than twins would put an extra stress on her body. If I recall correctly, she was a triplet or possibly quadruplet (she's from the cohort that the tenants made choices about when I went to Canada).

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Earth Hour

I first heard about Earth Hour ( last year, but didn't get around to really checking it out until too late. So this year when someone reminded me of it, I remembered what the concept was. Basically, for a designated hour people were to turn off their lights what? Well, to save that much energy. To see what darkness looked like. To demonstrate a concern for our earth, for our energy addiction. To do something together. To make a statement. To be one voice among millions.

Some very big events were planned--dousing of lights at the Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower.

I didn't really even plan anything. After all, at 8:30 I am usually just pulling out of the yard at work, heading home by way of whatever errands could be done at that hour.

Tonight, one errand was to stop by the hardware store to exchange some fluorescent lightbulbs I'd purchased last night that were the wrong size. How ironic! At the designated hour--8:30--I was in a bightly lit store looking at their lightbulb display! But I NOTICED it--the dozens of sample fixtures beaming their light and heat into the already brightly lit room. Did they really need to be on all the time? After all, when I buy a light fixture, what it looks like unlit is just as important as what it looks like when it's on.

Anyhow, I certainly wasn't off to a very good start for Earth Hour.

Next, the Post Office to pick up my mail. The lobby is brightly lit, day and night. Hm. It's pretty deserted when I stop by every night, and probably even more deserted in the wee hours of the morning. Maybe they could use a motion-detector sensor at night? That would help with the trouble of vagrants sleeping in there, as well--if the light were on for very long, police would know someone was hanging out there.

Amazing how our awareness of something we take for granted can be changed just by thinking about an idea. I never before questioned that the light should be on all the time.

I decided when I got home that I would go ahead and do an hour of darkness on the farm, even though I would be an hour late by the time I made the rounds of the entire farm. Better late than never.

First I went through the house. My housemate had left a couple lights on because he knows I don't like walking into a dark house. Almost all my lights are fluorescent, so I don't worry about them being on a lot. I need a lot of light in the winter to keep from being depressed, and I live a pretty low-carbon-footprint lifestyle anyhow, so light is one of my "luxuries."

I turned those off, and put on my head lamp to go out to turn off the barn light.

But there were still so many lights on! I walked around and turned off all the power strips, douwing the lights on the computer, the printer, the phone, the cordless drill charger, the microwave, the power strips themselves. Oops--I'd forgotten to unplug the bread machine on Sheep Shearing Day, and hadn't noticed because I rarely walk into the kitchen in the dark.

Then out to the barn. The light there is on a timer to stay on for a few hours after dusk. That way I'm encouraged to go out and check things after work. Also, if I have work to do in the barn, it means the sluggish flourescent light is all warmed up, in cold weather. A power strip turned off that light, plus the extension cords with lighted plugs and the power strip itself.

Then I noticed the glow of the electric fence charger. I'd meant to turn it off earlier, because the day's ice storm would be weighting down the portable mesh fences and shorting them out. Right now none of the sheep are confined by it, so I unplugged it. I'll recheck the fences after the ice melts, then turn it back on. I keep it on even when it's not really being used because the charge keeps the wildlife from chewing on it.

So finally the barn was dark. The night was really pretty, with light from faraway street lights and security lights glinting off the ice on the trees and fences. The ewes were all contentedly munching on hay that I threw to them, making snug rustling noises in the barn. I brought them all into the barn last night when I knew it would be nasty winter storm weather today. It's so nice to see the farm dry under its new tarps, and they held up well under the ice.

Then up to the little house that will be come the farm's retail area. I've been keeping lights on there all the time for security reasons. We've had several break-ins, and the light makes it look more lived-in, and it would be obvious from the street or the driveway if anyone were moving around in it.

As I started turning off lights, I looked at them. I THOUGHT I'd gotten them all switched over to fluorescents, but I guess not. I went back to the main house for a bunch of bulbs, and started switching out each light as I turned it off. While looking for light bulbs, I also found a spare timer, so I brought that over, too. I set up one lamp with an incandescent bulb on the timer, so it's only on during the dark hours. The compact fluorescent bulbs say not to use them with a timer. I need to look into the details of that, because it would save a lot of energy to put them all on timers. Incandescents use a lot more energy...but what's the trade-off between an incandescent on a timer, and a fluorescent that's on 24-7?

An hour later, I went around and turned things on again. But not quite all of them, not quite the same. Even this belated, impromptu effort at observing Earth Hour had made a surprising difference in both my awareness and my infrastructure.

-- In the little house, I replaced 4 incandescents with cfl's, reduced the number of 24-7 lights by 2/5, and put 1 incandescent (a mere 40 watts) on a timer to run just 12 hours.

-- In the barn, I adjusted the timer to remain on just 3 hours after dusk, instead of 5.

-- In the house, I replaced the bad old bulb with a new one, and was amazed at how much more light it gives. And I only turned on the light in the room where I'm working. And I unplugged the drill charger and the bread machine until the next time I use them.

It's a tiny effort. But it's little efforts like this that add up, day after day, month after month, year after year, one household at a time.

Next year I'll do more.

And during that hour--I remembered how much I like darkness, when I'm not too focussed on DOING things.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Girls at War

All the rest of Shearing Day, every time we looked at the combined flock of all the ewes (we merged the Skinny Minnies with the Fatties, since it's so close to lambing), Perfle and Faith were having it out with each other. Everyone else pretty much ignored them.

There's always a lot of pushing and shoving and head-butting the afternoon of shearing day. Apparently the sheep don't recognize one another very readily after their haircuts. Well, I have trouble recognizing them, too--that's why they are ear-tagged with their names! So they take this opportunity to treat each other as strangers, and work out their entire social order all over again.

But it generally is over in an hour or two. And this just went on and on.

They butted again and again, backing up a pace or two each time. Not with blind murderous intent like fighting rams, but with more seriousness and persistence than I've previously seen in ewes. In between rounds of butting, they would stand forehead to forehead, as if questioning whether each other would surrender yet. Alternatively they would engage in vigorous body slamming.

Even half a bale of good alfalfa did not distract them for long.

After puzzling over it awhile, I realized that Perfle had been a Skinny Minnie, while Faith was a Fatty. Evidently they had each been the matriarch of their band, and now they needed to narrow the leadership down to one. And they were pretty evenly matched, even though Perfle is older and smaller.

Gang war, sheep fashion.

When I figure out who won, I'll let you know. Leadership among the flock is subtle, to the uninitiated.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A Memorable Shearing Day

Thanks to excellent assistance from many different folks during the week before shearing--some planned, some spur-of-the-moment--this year's Spring Shearing Day and Open Farm were the best ever (despite a most unusual twist, more on that later).

I felt this at several points in the day. First, when I got up (with more than 4 hours of sleep!) and didn't feel panicked about things undone...instead, it was more of a challenge to think what to do with all the volunteers who were planning to come early.

Then, when we had dozens of people contentedly milling around, waiting for the shearer to come, and I wasn't frantically scrambling around looking for some essential item.

During the shearing, when I was in the sheep pen, heading up the effort to get the sheep into the shearer's hands at the right times, and everything else was going just fine without my involvement or supervision. I was fairly out of control of what was going on among the crowd and in the wool-handling area. But everyone on that side of the sorting chute seemed pretty calm and relaxed, and everything seemed to just go like clockwork, and the main questions and answers back andforth across the chute were about names and numbers for the sheep as they were sheared, and requests to purchase fleeces.

Finally, as volunteers left one by one either after the shearing or after lunch, and I profusely expressed my gratitude to each one for all their wonderful help, each one of them replied "but I didn't do that much!" And after I heard the same protest from several folks, I realized that was the highest measure of success for the day: Everything had gone that smoothly, and no one doing the work had felt burdened by it.

A good time was had by all.

Except one.

For the ewe we call Little One--one of the two remaining CVM/Suffolk cross ewes we bought from our neighbor fall-before-last, to refresh our line-breeding to our foundation CVM ram--it was possibly the worst day of her life.

She has always been a shy, flighty sheep. She's one of those ewes that joined her former flock mostly because she was too little to go to slaughter with her cohorts, and then ended up bred, and surprisingly was productive enough to remain part of the flock year after year. Her small stature was probably a side effect of her shyness, as she hangs back when others crowd too tight around the feed, so she misses out on the best "cookies", and that keeps her small which keeps her missing out, in a vicious cycle.

In the working chute, she's the only Suffolk cross that was rarely inclined to try to climb out of the chute. She discovered a more effective, less dramatic form of resistance: she simply put her head down.

Not just relaxing her neck and drooping. No. No onecould put her dead down as effectively as Little One. Little One perfected the skill of locking her neck in a rigid position with her nose near her front hooves. You could reach under her neck, and lift with all your might, and her neck would not raise from her shoulders. Instead, if you pulled hard enough you would lift the entire front half of the animal off the ground with the nose and hooves rigidly locked in relation with each other. I am not sure but it often seemed like she somehow managed to shift most of her weight off her hind legs onto the lifting arm during this maneuver, however at odds with the law of gravity that might be.

That gives you an idea of the degree to which her neck strength had been developed.

She was the second-to-last sheep to be sheared. And she decided to fight the shearer, while he had her upside down resting on her rump with her upper body cradled against his. She fought harder than I've seen any sheep fight the shearer, for longer. I was some ways away, so I didn't hear all of his comments during the tussle, nor have a clear view. But some way into the violent wrestling match, I heard language from the shearer that he usually reserves for the llama shearing when there is not an audience of small children, and I knew something was seriously wrong. Another bout of tussling, she was somewhat subdued, and he resumed shearing her.

As I watched her fight, I commented to whoever was near, "Looks like she just bought herself a one-way ticket to the processing plant. I don't keep the ones that are that hard to work with."

Little did I know at that moment that she had, through her own sheer powerful thrashing, tried to buy her own ticket to an early grave. Danny had resorted to an extreme restraint method another shearer had once shared with him, and her next ill-timed powerful lunge had been forceful enough that she snapped her own foreleg half-way above the knee.

After he finished shearing her, and she stood there with her right foreleg dangling limp, it all came clear to me...all except what to do next. Everyone waited calmly, in an air of uncertainty. No one panicked, thankfully. Gradually the attention turned to me: "Now what? You're directing this show."

Still grappling with this strange turn of events, I remembered we had one sheep left to shear. Then the fleece handlers could leave if they wanted, the audience could go home, I could think for a minute. I turned the other ewes out of the holding pen into the yard, opened the gate to the shearing area, and Little One limped into the holding pen on three legs. My heart ached for her, and for all the tender-hearted observers who are not used to the life-and-death, blood-and-gut realities of farming.

I called the vet, but it was Saturday, and he was out of town and unavailable. The vet covering for him was unavailable as well. I called my backup vet, who doesn't like sheep to begin with and especially not on Saturdays. True sheep vets are few and far between, and just finding a vet that does ANY "large animal" work is a challenge, let alone one that knows, let alone likes, small ruminants.

I know the drill well: Call the vet, get the answering service, "please leave your number and he'll call back. Let us know if you don't hear from him in 15 minutes." Time passes, no call-back, I call again, same story, this time he calls promptly. A flash of insight: They probably NEVER call back on the first call. The tedious delay is to give you time to figure it out on your own, for the animal to recover or die on its own, whatever time will do (hopefully!) to reduce the likelihood that you will insist that the vet actually set aside his enjoyable Saturday afternoon to make a farm call.

The vet said the same thing the shearer did, only more bluntly: "You can put her down now, or try to splint it until after she lambs and then put her down." I noticed he did not offer to come teach me how to set and splint a broken leg. I asked about pain management, and he seemed to feel it was not bothering with. Animal analgesics are apparently prescription only, and perhaps he didn't want to make a trip to the office to provide them to me. In fact, this may not be as cruel as it seems. Sheep surely experience pain differently than we do, or they would not be able to slam their heads repeatedly into one another as they do. And, pain often serves a valuable purpose of feedback to remind one to avoid stressing an injured part...helpeful with animals, where you can't exactly say "please don't put any weight on your leg for a few days". (I, myself, avoid using aspirin, ibuprofen, etc. in most cases for this same reason, to encourage me to actually stop using the affected part so it can heal.)

The next indicated thing seemed to be lunch for everyone left at the farm. Shearing and sheep handling works up an appetite, aside from the fact that it was already early afternoon. The impending challenge to my woefully inadequate animal paramedic skills would go better if I was properly hydrated and not suffering from hypoglycemia. Ditto my assistants. And those who had worked so hard (whether they thought so or not) that morning deserved a well-earned bowl of mutton stew from the crock pot, bread fresh from the bread machine, rice and lentils from the rice cooker, etc. (These small appliances are not absolutely necessary, but they are sure handy farm tools for a busy solo farmer!)

During and after lunch we brainstormed. What to use as a splint? Both shearer (now on his way to another farm) and vet had suggested PVC pipe--but what size, and how applied? We discussed various approaches to restraint, bandaging, etc. I rummaged here and there, and we finally gathered a smorgasbord of various wood and PVC splint options, "vet wrap" from the first aid kits, an old sock, and the ubiquitous duct tape, plus implements for cutting these items.

On returning to the barn, we found her in surprisingly good condition. She was calm, alert, and very interested in the alfalfa hay we offered--evidence, I've learned, of an overall will to live that is the difference between life and death.

We confined her in a smaller pen--she hobbled willingly on 3 legs--so that I could catch her without chasing. I had put a collar on her while she was still in the shearer's hands, so now I slowly sidled up to her and slowly reached for the collar. I grasped it without her leaping away, and snapped on a lead rope, so that if she got loose we could easily catch it and work our way towards her without her trying to run too much. Anything we could do to minimize trauma to the unsplinted limb.

We had decided to use the "Sheep Sofa" to restrain her for splinting. This is a device that looks like a lengthwise sling-type chair--another brand is called the "Deck Chair". It leans against a sturdy gate or panel. Then you back the sheep up to the lower end, with the cross piece hitting the back of her hind legs just above the hocks. Keep backing her a bit, then lift up on her chest, and suddenly she is sitting on her back with her legs in the air. The sheep tend to be very quiet in the sheep sofa, especially if someone holds their head from flopping to one side.

To acheive this without the broken limb flopping at odd angles, we first wrapped the broken area somewhat firmly just as it was, without trying to straighten or splint it. Then we hoisted her carefully into the chair, one person lifting while another supported her leg.

With her in the chair, and someone cradlng her head, I unbandaged the leg while supporting it. Then others braced her body while I pulled on the knee to pull the bone into its proper position, with ends meeting rather than slid past each other several inches. Of course this was obviously very painful for her. The feel and sound of the bone was excruciating for me, too. I steeled myself to do it only because it was her best hope for living. With the bone more or less properly aligned, I re-wrapped the leg with vet wrap to help keep it aligned, and so the splint wouldn't rub on bare skin (though even her sheared wool offered a fair amount of padding). Then we applied two wooden splints, a thin one on the inside and a thick one on the outside, and covered the whole thing in vet wrap again.

Keeping animal bandages intact is always a challenge, though it's probably easier for sheep than any other animal. Because of their wool, they have the least grooming impulse of any animal I know, so they aren't inclined to lick or chew too much. I've learned that athletic socks make great bandage covers, so cut off the toe and pulled it over the more fragile vet wrap. Duct tape at each end, above and below the splints, kept it secure over the bandages and splints.

We let her down carefully, removed our equipment, and I gave her a dose of Nutri-Drench (propylene glycol for energy, with vitamins and minerals) to help revive her. Then we left her alone for awhile. The rest was pretty much up to her--would she recover from the pain of the setting, or just give up after our torment of her? Would she figure out how to get around and lie down and stand up with this awkward, unbendable leg?

When I checked her later, again she was much recovered. She was drinking, eating alfalfa, pooping normally again (when we went out to splint her, she had displayed severe diarrhea). She lay down and stood up on her own.

An injured sheep in solitary confinement would mean increased time and effort during a season when I'm already pushed to the limits, esp. with lambing coming up in a few weeks. After some thinking, I gave a call to friends who had expressed an interest in getting some ewes from me. After a couple phone calls, we confirmed that they would take her for free, care for her, and hopefully at least get her lambs safely on the ground as the beginning of their new flock.

On Sunday afternoon, she walked to their truck on her own, with our guidance. We lifted and rolled her onto the tailgate, then pulled her rump first into their big hog-carrying crate bedded with hay. Now she did the ever-popular "rigid boneless catatonic" routine that sheep sometimes do. Oh, well. We put a feed sack under her head to keep the hay from irritating her eye.

When they got in the truck and drove away carefully, I was startled by thundering hooves. The neighbor's horses, pastured more than 200 feet from the sheep pens, were tearing around their pasture. The newest horse, Fancy, charged to a stop as close as she could get to where the truck was pulling away. She whinnied loudly, staring after the truck and looking straight into my eyes as I watched her. I realized that through the subtle communication that animals have, she had been totally aware of all that had transpired in the barn that day, and she was concerned for Little One's well-being. Perhaps because she was the outsider in the trio of horses--the other had been together for years, and she's clearly been an outcast since she arrived a month or two ago--she apparently has bonded with the sheep despite the physical separation. Maybe watching them has been her soap opera! She was intensely distressed that Little One was being taken away. I walked as close to her as I could, and spoke to her, reassuring her than Little One would receive loving care in her new home. She visibly quieted. I feel certain that animals understand far more of our spoken intentions (as well as unspoken) than we can imagine.

The next several days, every time I came from the house to the farm, Magpie (Little One's flockmate from their former farm) would be standing as close to the barn as possible, a bit separate from the rest of the flock, staring at me with the same intent look that Fancy had had. I would reassure her, too, that Little One was receiving the best care we could give her.

At best, Little One will heal and live a few more productive years; at worst, she'll feed my friends' guardian dog. A middle ground would be to deliver healthy lambs, nurse them to weaning, and then be put down.

At any rate, I think we've given her the best chance we can. And I've learned a lot.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Highs and Lows

Spring in Kansas--now you see it, now you don't. Since my last post, we've had lows in the mid-teens...and tomorrow may hit 80.

The variable weather makes it hard to plan tasks, and hard to know when to plant things. Our early-planted radishes and other crucifers were nipped by that cold snap, but were seeded pretty thickly so actually I think the cold just did the thinning for us. The tiny spinach seedlings just paused, then went on growing. The peas were still snuggly under their mulch, and we covered the more mature overwintered spinach, cilantro and walking onions so they look great.

We were supposed to receive our nearly 100# of seed potatoes the week it got cold...and almost paniced when the "shipment notification" came on email the day before the lowest forecasted temperature. But the great folks at (there, I've given away a trade secret!) reassured me that my potatoes were safely in their warm-enough-but-not-too-warm warehouse until the forecast cleared. We don't normally make much effort to plant on the traditional St. Patrick's Day date, but we do like to give them time to pre-sprout in the warm house several weeks before planting into warmer April soil.

This week is a buzz of barn-cleaning and reconstruction, as we prepare for shearing. This morning, two apprentices and I replaced the very worn tarp that has served in place of a "normal" roof over the west end of the "green barn". Each time I tarp it, I learn more about effective ways of doing this. While the temporary roof does take some maintenance, I think in the long run it is pretty cost-effective at less than $100 per set of tarps, which last a year or more. The trusses I installed last year were a great improvement over the old structure, and they look great: some old wooden extention ladders I bought for a couple dollars at an auction. This year's innovation is using two tarps to better cover the entire roof, right up over the end of the arched section of the barn. Another experiment is using parachute cord as a securement. My main question is the longevity of the parachute cord in the sunlight. Time WILL tell....

In addition to several local "day apprentices", and occasional short-term WWOOFers, this year we're hosting our first live-in, full-time apprentice. She's a teacher in another city, so she's doing an intensive "Intro to Pinwheel Farm" over Spring Break this week, and will return as soon as school is out. In just a day and a half, I can see the progress of having such an energetic helper. I'm also realizing that there is a lot of common ground between teaching high school and working with sheep! So whatever your current trade, don't discount it as a good foundation for living out your dream of farming.

Upcoming Event: Spring Sheep Shearing Open Farm Day

It's Christmas and New Years rolled into one: Spring shearing, less than a month before spring lambing. This year it will be on march 21, starting about 10:00 a.m. and lasting about 1 1/2 - 2 hours. Come to watch or lend a hand (there are many easy tasks for novices of any age)...and feel free to bring friends, family, children, neighbors. (Sorry, this is one day even our favorite dogs need to stay home.)

Do try to carpool, ride a bike, or ride the bus (the #4 leaves 9th and Mass at 9:44; get off at 5th and Lyon, walk 2 blocks north, and you're practically there)...we have more parking space than ever before, but it's still limited. And PLEASE don't block the driveway; it's a circle drive and there's more parking further in.

We'll have lunch for the shearer and helpers afterwards; if you want to join us, bring food to share.

If this one doesn't fit your schedule, we'll be shearing again in late September.

To get to Pinwheel Farm:

From Lawrence/points south: Go north across the Mass. St. bridge onto North 2nd. Go through 2 stoplights. Look for O'Reilly Auto Parts on the right, and turn onto the street just BEFORE O'Reilly's (North St. a.k.a. N. 1700 Rd.). Go about 4 blocks east. Just past the trailer court (on the right) you will cross N. 5th St. (also on the right). The farm driveway is just beyond 5th Street on the LEFT.

Alternative side-street route for walking/biking: Come across the walk on the east bridge, and turn right onto Elm St. At Third St., turn north and follow 3rd as it jogs, east on Locust and north in front of the grain elevators and across the tracks. Take any preferred side street before or including North Street (I like Perry or Lincoln) east to 5th Street, turn left on 5th, and go to the end of the road. Jog right then left into the farmhouse drive, or go straight ahead into the drive for the new barn.

From I-70: Take the East Lawrence exit. At the light after the toll booth, turn LEFT onto N. 2nd/ Hwy 40/59. After passing the concrete "LAWRENCE" letters on the left, road will veer to the right. Look for O'Reilly Auto Parts on the left, and turn onto the street just AFTER O'Reilly's (North St. a.k.a. N. 1700 Rd.). Go about 4 blocks east. Just past the trailer court (on the right) you will cross N. 5th St. (also on the right). The farm driveway is just beyond 5th street on the LEFT.

From points north (Hwys 24/40): head south into Lawrence. After passing the concrete "LAWRENCE" letters on the left, road will veer to the right. Look for O'Reilly Auto Parts on the left, and turn onto the street just AFTER O'Reilly's (North St. a.k.a. N. 1700 Rd.). Go about 4 blocks east. Just past the trailer court (on the right) you will cross N. 5th St. (also on the right). The farm driveway is just beyond 5th street on the LEFT.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Mark the Calendar--Sure Signs of Spring

During this afternoon's Seminar, a feathered friend dropped in: A bluebird perched on a nearby fencepost in the middle of the garden for several minutes, so we had a great view of him. So blue, so beautiful!

Earlier in the afternoon, I was thrilled to hear the trill of a red-winged blackbird. Probably it was down by Maple Grove Tributary, sitting in the dry cattails. Soon there will be the different trill of the Northern Chorus Frogs that are colloquially called Spring Peepers, though that common name more properly belongs to a different species.

Speaking of frogs, when I lifted the lid on the big earth-contact tank in the front yard pen this morning, I could see several nice big Leopard Frogs in the muck at the bottom, along with the goldfish. During our Seminar, when we took the lid off again, we found SIX of them tucked under the curled rim of the plastic tank! One by one, I tried to scoot them out and catchthem to show the by one, they slipped through my hand and dove to the depths! I love that they have made the stock tanks their homes; it speaks well for the health of the ecosystem of the farm.

Eventually I got down to the business of demonstrating the layout for planting pea beds to the apprentices. On these beds that had tomatoes last year, and were heavily mulched, we use an abbreviated version of our standard bed prep procedure. We rake the remains of the mulch to the side, pull any green weeds that have sprouted (not many with that nice mulch), and just rake it flat. We don't undercut with the Valley Oak Wheel Hoe, nor add lime or manure and work it in with the Ro-Ho, because peas are pretty tolerant of our normal soil pH, and we don't need a fine seed bed for the large seeds.

So we're really just getting the surface clean enough that we can use the Seven-Row Furrower as a row marker. Then we use another home-made tool--a narrow, pointed furrowing hoe that a friend made from a standard garden hoe--to deepen all but the middle furrow.

We won't use all 7 rows for peas--that would be a jungle! Four rows--every other one--would grow and produce nicely in all but the driest season, but it would be hard to pick the middle rows thoroughly. Pea picking is labor intensive; anything "free" thing we can do to make it easier is worthwhile. So we leave the middle row empty, and plant the rows next to it with peas, one seed per inch or slightly further apart.

That leaves the 2 outer rows on each side. We plant green onions in these, using the little bulbs called "sets". We place them in the furrows root down (or we get spiral onions) about 3" apart. After all onions and peas have been placed, I run my hand down each row, thumb on one side, fingers on the other, loosely pulling the soil over the planted row with a fluttery pinching motion. This covers them while keeping each one in the exact place I planted it. Then I tamp the center of the bed--the pea rows only--with the back of the rake.

This all takes slightly less than 1 1/2 hour, start to finish. After mulching and putting up the pea fence, we won't have to do much to this bed until harvest time--60 days on the Sugar Sprint snap peas, less than that for the green onions. When the onions are done, as the peas are waning, we'll transplant heat-loving summer crops (often basil) in place of the onions, letting the peas shade them as they get established.

By the time I finished this task, it was too dark to fetch a cartload of mulch, but I don't think the soil will dry out too much overnight. Tomorrow morning, I'll mulch the bed quite heavily with a relatively weed-proof layer of waste brome hay.

The last finishing touch will be to put up a section of woven wire fencing down the middle of the bed, between the t-posts at each end that supported the tomato cages last year.

I actually thought to keep a record of how many sets and seeds it takes to plant a 23' long (our standard) pea bed on this pattern: .2 lbs. of peas, and about 3 lbs. of onion sets--ABOUT. The yield of green onions from this planting will be about 70 bunches.

ABOUT. In the waning light, I hurried to gather tools in for the night. With most of them in the wagon, carrying the bucket of weeds, I could get them all in one trip. But I was concerned that the coffee can holding the remaining onion sets would fall off the wagon, so I set it in the top of the weed bucket. Called ot the dogs, got the cart turned around, thinking about the meeting I wanted to attend that was due to start in 15 minutes.

Of course you know the rest of the all seems perfectly obvious when I write it. When I got to the sheep pen, I hurriedly tossed the goodies into the pen. The sheep are onto this game, even this early in the growing season. They had been snacking on the last of their evening feed of alfalfa hay, but fairly flew to the spot at which the weeds were about to land. I hear the "doink" of the coffee can landing upside down under the weeds just as the sheep hit the weed pile.

In the name of science--or at least data collection--I hurriedly let myself into the pen and made spooky noises and pushed and shoved and flapped my hands enough to confuse the sheep. Confused, they retreated a step or two, just long enough for me to rescue the coffee can and sift out most the onions, but they sure seemed like they wanted to eat them.

In addition to looking nice and clean on the market stand, I grow the white onion sets because they are easy to see in the dark...both when you're planting them, and when you have to pick them up out of the sheep pen.

The "dark side" of the day's springtime adventures was getting the first mosquito bites of the season. Time to start patrolling the farm for anything that can hold water, so they have no place to lay their eggs.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Curriculum for Learning to Farm (Part 1)

Interviewing apprentice/volunteer hopefuls--and then working with them--is always a learning experience: I learn more about how much I knew when I started out "knowing nothing about farming".

SOME--by no means all--of the learning I had under my belt when I started this farm includes:

--When I was a toddler, I was read field guides instead of children's books for bedtime stories, thereby learning to identify a vast number of birds, insects, etc. before I could read. At 3, I spotted my first Tufted Titmouse, referencing it by name before any adult could see it.

--When I could read, I poured over Mom's biology text books (Animals without Backbones, Between Pacific Tides, Botany, Mammalogy, etc.) and other scholarly tomes, including the Yearbook of Agriculture volume on Animal Diseases (a special favorite because it had a chapter on HORSES--I was a horse nut from about age 1 when we lived across the street from a horse, whom I visited frequently on my own, to my mother's dismay). Then the History of Techonology series (Oxford University publications) was the foundation of most of our school social studies reports, encouraging us to delve into by-gone eras for relevent bits of cleverness using simple materials. I built a functioning bow drill out of sticks, lumber scraps, string, and a flattened nail that I sharpened by rubbing it on the concrete sidewalk.

--Dad was a physics professor, so we got long, detailed explanations on How Things Worked from an early age. And demonstrations. A favorite childhood bathtub toy was a submarine soldered from a tin can. You blew air into it, or sucked air out, through a piece of plastic tubing, and it rose and sank.

--Even children's books purchased for us were educational. "Look At A Flower" detailed the vast variety of plant reproductive organs in simple, scientifically correct language and lovely accurate drawings.

--We didn't watch much else, but we watched every Jacques Cousteau and National Geographic special that was on TV.

--We spent a lot of time outdoors--gardening, hiking, camping, etc. Birdwatching and nature observation was as natural as breathing. Parents narrated and explained everything with scholarly accuracy and frequent consultation with to the reference books.

--Camping included living in tents for up to a month every summer, on an island in Canada with no running water and no electricity. We took only what would fit in our small sailboat, so I learned to live very, very simply and also that such living was fun, relaxing and easy (Mom probably has a different memory of those times). We fished (and I became proficient at cleaning fish by age 9 or 10) and foraged for some of our food. Mmmm...Mom cooking blueberry pancakes cooked on an open fire that I'd built myself, after picking the blueberries from the rocks behind the tent! Oooooh, Dad figuring out how to bolt shut the ice chest with padlocks and suspend it from the rafters of the picnic shelter to try tokeep the racoons out of it. EWWWWWW Mom using Solarcaine ("kills sunburn pain") to sterilize the racoon saliva on the outside of the ice chest.... Thus I learned resourcefulness....

And I had all that stuffed into my thinking cap by the time I got to junior high school.


--Jr. high biology dissections were a breeze after cleaning fish as a kid, so instead of being grossed out I was intrigued to learn more of the words to go with familiar parts. Butchering chickens 30 years later was no sweat at all, just a little more complicated.

--Need a topic for speech class? Ask Dad! Preparing a presentation on the dynamics of water currents in ponds as they warm and cool gave a lasting understanding of why life is possible on earth thanks to the fact that water expands as it changes phases. Understanding the dynamics of a stock tank when the deicer malfunctions--same thing.

--When my daughter was born, we wanted to do a home birth...very radical at that time. I studied the physiology of childbirth in some detail, plus studied nutrition intensely, with a focus on protein balancing (Diet for A Small Planet). Later, I was able to quiz out of a 3-hour college coarse on nutrition by sitting down and acing all the tests in one sitting. 25 years later, slogging through the details of balancing sheep diets was time-consuming but familiar. And I had a pretty good general background for being a sheep midwife, though it was still pretty stressful at first when things went wrong with a ewe. Things seem very different when you are in charge, instead of just a bystander.

--As the eldest child, I was the one who most frequently helped Dad with building and repair projects when he needed someone to fetch something or hold the other end of the board. I learned a lot about tools--their names, how to use them, how not to use them--by watching and listening. Later, I put my excellent "go-fer" skills learned as a child to good use, hanging out with carpenter friends and assisting on job sites during a time of unemployment. A great way to learn about construction tricks--from the pros. I did the same thing with a mechanic friend, and did most of my own mechanic work with my first 4 or 5 vehicles (until fuel injection and electronic ignition rendered crucial aspects of my understanding--and tool collection--obsolete).

--As a young adult, I took an evening course in home wiring, and helped rewire several homes that I lived in through the years.

--Later, in my early 30's, I learned a lot about commercial vegetable production (more than I really wanted to know, actually) indirectly through research that I did when I worked for an environmental consulting firm. Through that job, I took related college courses: Insecticide Properties and Laws, Vegetable Crop Production, Greenhouse Management. I attended a graduate-level seminar on The Beneficial Effect of Vegetation on Contaminated Soils (how could I pass up a title like that?).

--I had friends who had sheep, and I spent every spare minute at their place helping out with the most disgusting and mundane work (sink after sink of washing two-week-old dirty dishes, for example) just so I could watch what they were doing, and asking a million questions. I took charge of their small farm for an entire month, while working a full-time job and going to school, for no reward other than the opportunity to feel what it felt like (and the privilege of being hoodwinked by a half-wild turkey, Ellie...).

And THEN I got my own farm. And felt like I knew abosolutely nothing.

Ironically, that was about the time, 20 years after my first college class, I earned a BS in Human Resource Management from Friends University, with memorable course work in Business Ethics, Problem Solving, Group Dynamics, Time Management, and Statistics, completing the program requirements with an in-depth research project on Life/Work Management.

FINALLY I started studying farming in earnest. Book after book on sheep health, nutrition, care, etc. Picking the brains of my mentors. Helping them on their farms whenever possible.

And I worked off the farm part time.

--At Water's Edge (a water garden store) I delved deeper into the nuances of pond ecology, and applied it to managing stock tanks at home. I also learned the names of a million plumbing parts, and how they all went together. And got over my prudery at calling them "male" and "female" in polite company. I learned about portable water pumps and how they break. And I had a marvelous opportunity to observe a small, efficiently run business in action.

--At Howard Pine's Greenhouse and Garden Center, I learned by massive repetition how to prick out seedlings and grow transplants. I learned the nuances of local growing conditions and calendar from folks who'd been growing in the neighborhood for generations.

--At Bowser Meat Processing, I learned a lot about processing meat, but most importantly I learned what "sharp" meant, in regards to cutting implements.

Now, I've been farming for a solid 12 years. There is still far more that I don't know, than I know. There are huge gaps in my knowledge and experience of which I am acutely aware. But, I do have a thing or two to teach. And I love teaching others these things I enjoy so much, and find so fascinating.

But in teaching what I know, I become ever more aware of how much others don't know, and how unaware they are of their lack of knowledge.

Anatomy, physiology, nutrition, life cycles--for plants and for animals. The names of weeds, trees, birds, bugs, tools, materials, etc. The manner of using basic tools, let along specialty ones. Or our bodies.

How to sharpen things. Or mend things. Or tie knots (childhood sailing adventures serve me well here). Or use gravity. Or hear things. Or figure things out.

Plumbing. Wiring. Carpentry. Internal combustion engines.

These are all so essential to farming.

And yet notice--I have said not one thing about how to plant a seed, or pick a vegetable. Yet that is all some folks think they need to learn in order to farm. And they think that I can teach them in a year, four hours a week. And they think they should be paid for their time! It's especially baffling when kids with expensive college degrees come to me wanting to learn, but expect to not pay tuition; and think they can set their own class schedule, changing it at a whim; and don't want to read any books or take any tests.

Farming is not a kindergarten class. It is post-doctorate level work. If you are coming to me to learn, esp. to be paid, you should expect to work as hard intellectually as if you were in grad school. Think of it as a GTA sort of thing...getting paid a pittance to work unbelievably hard at someone else's beck and call, and have to attend classes at inconvenient times and keep up with your studies and write papers on top of all that, and do a research project. And come to it with a sound foundation in the basics (as outlined above) or do remedial studies before getting the job.

I don't mind doing the remedial classes for those that need them. Honest. I actually enjoy working with beginners. But please, folks, understand that there is a LOT to learn BEFORE you can really learn to farm...and be prepared to work at it.

I hope by the end of the year the farm will be able to pay someone to work with me on the farm. But that person will need to come to the farm with a good foundation in most of these areas, or will need to spend a full year as a full-time volunteer to catch up in key areas of learning.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Season of Waiting

It isn't time yet.

Several inches of picturesque snow on the re-frozen ground outside the window drum that into my dense head. This is the season of waiting, relentless waiting, for spring.

It seemed to be here. But the calendar says not. But then what about global warming? Could it really be so much earlier this year? Or to make up for last year's late hard cold that delayed the growing season by two full weeks?

Yes, wait. This is one of those seasons of farming that isn't on the calendar, the season of thinking it is spring when it is not, the season of waiting and wondering and thinking it is only to realize I've foolishly let it trick me again. I rehearse this same sequence of feelings every year at this time. It always tricks me.

My life says wait: An series of unexpected problems with the new property has tied up my time, attention, and energy this week, when I longed to be out planting things on those nice warm days last week. Today, when the annoyances of being a landlord were put on hold because offices aren't open on Sundays, it was frigid and snowy. Not much to be done except one last--hopefully--round of struggling with frozen hoses and malfunctioning stock tank deicers for the season. I could be frustrated, irritable and unreasonable without knowing it. But I recognize this as all part of the season.

Wait. I'm not sure if the day made that easier or harder.

My apprentice changed her schedule, so I had the day entirely free, except for the monthly local Shape Note Sing in the afternoon.

I cannot recall the last time I had a Sunday off like this. As I've written before, the conventional Sabbath is something I had to "lay down" (in the Quaker sense) since my Sabbatical, and since getting the job driving the bus.

I slept in a little bit--not really--because I ended up misreading the clock and getting up at the same time as usual thinking it was an hour later. Does that mean I got an extra hour of sleep? I THOUGHT I did, anyway!

Then what to do with my morning, after more than a year of apprentices on Sundays? My thoughts turned to a church I'd been wanting to visit for a long time, the Willow Springs Old Order German Baptist Church south of town. I know a number of the members from Farmer's Market. I've attended the German Baptist meeting in Jamesport with my Old Order River Brethren friends there, several times. Over the years, I've stumbled across the local meetinghouse several times on back road rambles south of town, but keep forgetting the exact location, the meeting time, and which Sunday of the month they meet in the evening instead of morning. I have a phone number for a member who offered to give me a ride sometime, more than a year ago, floating around the house on a small scrap of paper, turning up when I don't have time, absent when I think of dialing.

It's always a strange feeling to just show up at a strange church, whether my denomination or another. A real act of courage.

Today, though, every possible hesitation simply evaporated into thin air. I dressed, ate breakfast, picked up the first Bible that came to hand, and set forth with no thought of turning back. Either I would find Willow Springs, or I would enjoy a lovely Sunday drive int he snowy countryside. But something (someOne?) led me as surely as if by the hand, directly to the place. The meeting time on the sign was 10:00; it was 10:30. But without hesitation I mounted the steps to the broad doors and quietly walked in.

The scripture being read at that moment was one that spoke loudly to me: it was the same scripture that had been echoing deafeningly loudly in my spiritual ears since the moment I realized that there truly was no way for me to be reintegrated into the congregation that had disowned me when I went on Sabbatical, and failed to welcome me back.

After the long service (OOGB meet for 2 hours--actually not so long compared to the OORB's 3 hour services), several familiar faces quietly greeted me and bid me welcome to return. No big excitement to have a new face among the small gathering; no staring at the weird woman in pants and a rainbow covering; no overwhelming me with programs and schedules and special activities I might like to participate in. No guest book to sign, just a few hands to shake--old friends, and young strangers.

I cannot imagine myself ever becoming a member in a church such as this; the long, broken life that has led me to God holds a great many fragments that such a church will probably never embrace. And I can't commit to being single for the next 50 years, under their purity standards regarding divorce.

But how good it is to be among friends for a little while, and travel together on this spiritual journey with congenial companions even if our destinations are not quite the same, and our ways are foreign to one another.

Later, the church building that hosted the Shape Note sing was draped in purple, reminding me that today is the first Sunday in Lent. Lent has always been my favorite liturgical season, even before I was a Christian. Lent has somehow always made a lot more sense to me than any other facet of Christian practice. Perhaps because it hasn't been popularized and commercialized...exploited for worldly gain...although one might think of the current economic "season" as a national Lent of sorts. Hm.

My Lenten sacrifices in the past have been eclectic, sometimes whimsical, at times almost brutally Spartan. One year I moved into a tiny spare room with just a cot and a few books, and ceased speaking to the spouse I'd forgotten how to say anything nice to anyhow. It hurt us both, but it was better than the cruel words that were the only way I could find to voice my pain at that time in my life. One year I undecorated the entire house, putting away every item that did not have a practical function. Somehow I never needed such lavish decorations again. Last year I simply gave up Lent.

This year, perhaps I'm giving up giving up the Sabbath?

It isn't time, yet, for me to return to a normal life of just one job--a life with room for friendships and social activities and time for relaxation. I don't know when that life will be my lot again. But for a little while, waiting for spring, I can give up giving up leisure time.

And wait, for Lent is a season of waiting just as much as Advent. But it's a season of empty waiting, not the pregnant waiting of least for me. I'm sure the sheep are thinking more of Advent, if they think of such things.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Sound of "Silence"--Or the Sound of Music?

When potential applicants--whether as volunteers or housemates--read the Pinwheel Farm General Policies, a very common response is "These are great, I don't have any problem with them, that's how I want to live...except one thing...."

And that would be?

Music, invariably. "I like to listen to music."

I console myself that it seems like I am at least crossing paths with more and more young folks that are not glued to the television for life. They're happy to give that up...or already have. But the iPod or Walkman or whatever...that's a tough one for a lot of folks.

I like music, too. At previous times in my life, I listened to it a lot. And I gave it up in preference of something better, only it took me awhile to figure it out.

What REALLY mystifies them--to the point, I think, that curiousity overcomes their horror of the thought of being separated from their music--is why even headphones aren't especially welcome at the farm.

First, I try to reassure them that I'm not the Music Police. I'm perfectly willing to turn a blind eye (or deaf ear) to whatever goes on when I'm not at the farm...within reason.

But that reason is one of the main reasons behind the ban.

Learning to farm with headphones on is like learning a foreign language at a noisy party. Once you are fluent in the nuances of these sounds--the cadences, the tones, the inflections--then you can pick them out of the background noise. But to learn them, you must hear them plainly and clearly, undistracted by more familiar sounds. And it takes time--lot of time--to learn a strange language by immersion without any Rosetta Stone.

The farm speaks to me, 24-7. I listen to it whenever I am here, through any conversation or concentration. I listen without thinking about listening. My soul or spirit or subconscious or something like that monitors the cacophony of the farm, and reports to my awareness anything out of the ordinary. Alerted, I put my conversation or project on "pause" to assess the message. What got my attention? An odd tone to the noise of the pump or refrigerator? An absense of a certain sound (those can be especially hard to figure out), such as the eerie silence of crickets at the moment of the first frost? The voice of one of my animal charges--a lamb repeatedly calling, a chicken's distress call, a certain note in the dog's bark that says "coyote in the back yard"? A wildlife sound, such as a crow hassling a napping owl in the woods? In this urban setting, I need to discern whether the backup alarm on a distant vehicle is the garbage truck down the street, or someone engaged in illegal floodplain fill operations. The "silence" of the farm is pretty noisy most the time--even in the middle of the night.

Learning to farm, to really be a farmer instead of just someone who does a bunch of chores, means understanding the language that the farm speaks. And for that, yes, you really do have to take the headphones off and listen to the music of the farm, until it seeps into your subconscious. And little by little, you will be welcomed into a new world: the world that is the non-human Community of Life at the farm.

The rewards of admission into this hidden-in-plain-hearing world are many. The most wonderful, to me, is that which I anticipate in just 6 short weeks: the chance to witness the miracle of lambs being born. It is often the faintest of communication--really, a psychic call--that nags at my mundane awareness and inspires me to make an unscheduled lambcheck at just the right time. A thought that crosses my unfocussed, unheadphoned mind randomly may actually be a plea for help from the sheep.

I don't want to have any regrets along the lines of "I wish I'd been paying more attention...." if something goes wrong with a birth. But most of the lambs will be born just fine without my supervision, thanks to years of carefully relentless culling. So it's not so much the threat of regrets that motivates me to forego recorded music. Instead, the rewards of witnessing new birth are a powerful inspiration.

The music is recorded, after all. I can listen to it someday when I'm blind and feeble. But this is the only time that bird will sing just so, or that lamb will be born, or I will realize that I'm hearing something like snowflakes landing, or earthworms surfacing. Even if super technological stuff recorded these sounds, it would not be the same to hear the snow falling without the bite of cold air, or the worms without the smell of damp earth, or the lambing without the taste of spring in the air.

I want to give my apprentices the gift of being able to access these miracles themselves. It's a lifetime gift, a gift that keeps on giving. And so I invite the headphones to stay in a drawer.