Wednesday, December 26, 2012

First Try at Herding!

Coby went home last night, and things are a bit quiet around here. Sookie initially reverted to some old behaviors, like constantly pawing me while I'm working at the computer. So, I reverted to the old response: stand up and walk away. It didn't take very many times for her to get the message.

She unwittingly gave herself a good lesson on manners with guests this morning. A friend with a darling, sweet old chihuahua, Chalupa, visited us this morning. Sookie decided the visiting dog could not come in the living room, and Chalupa decided to play her "age card"..."I'm an old lady and I can go in the living room if I want to". Sookie flew into a tizzy at Chalupa, using some pretty nasty dog language...but in doing so, she accidentally knocked into a big empty popcorn tin that was sitting nearby with the lid partly on. The lid flew off with a clatter, the can made a huge crash, the sky fell, Sookie decided that her crate was plenty 'nuff territory to defend, and beat a hasty retreat before the rest of Armageddon happened. We humans just sat back and watched karma step in and handle the situation better than we could ever have done. Natural consequences are the best training device! After that, she was polite to the little dog.

This afternoon, Sookie had her first actual off-leash try at the sheep! We'd ventured into the sheep pen earlier, on-leash, but Sookie's whole attention was on sheep poop. So I decided that a better environment would be to let the sheep out on pasture where the sheep poop would be further apart and the sheep would be moving a lot. Instead of going in through the pen, we walked from the pasture to the pen, then let the sheep out. The sheep were overjoyed!

I mostly just watched, assessing her behavior with the sheep while being ready to intervene if a sheep decided to stand her down. At this stage, an attack by a big sheep could sour her to herding for a long time.

One of the runts was lagging behind, and I was pleased to see that Sookie was reluctant to pass it in order to keep up with the rest of the flock as they joyfully ran out to the pasture. Some dogs aren't careful to stay out of the middle of a group, and then things go really wonky as sheep move away from the dog in all directions. Sookie's reluctance to pass by the laggard kept the whole flock moving as a unit.

Once we were all out in the wide open space of the pasture, I waved at Sookie to go out around the flock, and she did...a very nice outrun at an adequate distance away from the greedily grazing sheep to keep the sheep calm, but still keeping a light contact with them, watching them all the time. She wasn't sure what to do when she got out there, though, and since the sheep aren't dog broke (trained to come to the handler when they see a dog), they didn't help us out. So at that point she shifted her attention back to me: "Mom......????? Now what?????"

I went to her and encouraged the sheep to move away from her, but by then she'd glued her attention back to me. So we went back around the sheep a bit to my starting point, and I waved her off around them in the other direction. Out she went again on a nice outrun, good as gold...just still not sure what to do when she got out there.

I don't want to call her to walk up on them until I know they won't stomp at her when I can't protect her. I don't want them to bully her and make her afraid to work. I'll be trying to find someone nearby with a good herding dog to come "dog break" the sheep, before we can make too much progress. But it was a good start.

She did sort of accidentally get the sheep moving again, by her presence; they decided to all run back to the sheep pen. Again, she was reluctant to pass the slow lamb, and looked like a pro "wearing" back and forth behind it, trying to get it to go faster. It didn't (spoiled bottle baby). So the flock got to the pen and "bounced" at the gate (even though it was open) and came back at us while we were approaching a wide intermediary gate. It was pretty comical because they all stopped right along the line of the open gate, as if there was an invisible wall, when they saw me and Sookie coming at them!

Then they headed for the pen again, and this time Sookie and I made them all go in. Sookie's "wearing" was actually very helpful in effecting this, and she got lots of praise!

She is pretty much a dream least if I can gradually wean her away from looking at me and get her to keep her attention on the sheep. She works on her feet, and doesn't "stick" in one spot, laying down eyeing the sheep. She is a natural at "wearing"--small dodging moves to the left and right that keep her on the sheep's radar and "steer" the sheep. She doesn't bark at them and go nuts, she doesn't run in too close and scatter them, she doesn't attack them, they seem calm around her. I'm very optimistic about training her to be a great working dog!

Afterwards, we went to the Romping Grounds for a reward. We're playing with three balls now, and she'll get them one at a time and put them in the bucket, sometimes even on the first try!

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

More Balls, More Fun

It has been good having Coby, the big Golden Retriever/Poodle mix, staying with us for a couple weeks. After the initial fuss over social status and territory in the house, he and Sookie have become good companions. They get along well at home, and have a great time romping together on the farm.

It's especially valuable to Sookie's training. Nothing like a big lumbering random distraction to hone her attention to me... and he keeps me from accidentally falling into routines I'm not aware of.

Sookie is very sensitive to routines. At first, we always went straight out to the "romping grounds" when we went to the farm morning and evening. Recently, we've had a few issues with her trying to INSIST that we go there first, before doing chores...and refusing to walk out to the pasture until after the romping grounds. Well, I need to be the one who gives orders, and sometimes we have to put work before play on the farm!

I'm letting both dogs off the leash as soon as the farm gate is closed behind us now. Then I stop Sookie with a "Lie Down" or a "Wait" at each gate or intersection. Trying to keep her  guessing...where will I go next? Sometimes I try to fake her out, or start one way then change my mind. She is learning to pay attention to me, learning that I'm unpredictable but something fun usually happens if she sticks with me.

At the romping grounds, we have two tennis balls now. And Coby. It's getting really exciting!

We've been working a lot on finding lost balls. When I can see them, and she's searching, I use the sheep-finding commands: "Look Back" (if it's behind her) and "Here Here" (if it's between me and her). Slowly she is learning to turn and search farther away on command. This is a challenge for her, because she wants to work close to me, watching me. Turning away from me is hard for her, but very necessary when working sheep. When in doubt, she starts going into orbit around me, looking at my feet. Not productive!

Continual random drilling on "Lie Down" has had good results, and she'll drop just about anywhere most of the time, regardless of what Coby is doing. Sometimes he is tripping over her, but she ignores him if I'm giving a command. This is vital before we start sheep long as she doesn't ignore the sheep in the same manner!

As a variation from our usual throw/fetch with the tennis ball, I've been working with two balls at once. This is extra challenging because once in awhile Coby will leave his stick and come grab a ball. We let him, and instantly re-direct to the other ball.

I'm especially impressed with the impulse control we've gotten on "Lie Down" "Stay" with a new game. I put her down near me, then throw one ball one direction, the other ball the other direction. She will actually stay in place when two balls are being thrown AND Coby is leaping after them right next to her! This is a pretty incredible feat of self-restraint and obedience!

Then what joy the command of "That one!" brings as I direct her which one to go get first! Off she tears, grabs it, brings it back, drops it in my hand, waits to see whether I will throw it again or tell her to go find the other one. Sometimes that depends on whether Coby is going after the other one.

Today, I introduced a new concept: "Drop it in the bucket", instead of "Drop it in my hands". She is trying so hard to understand! She is very intent, but puzzled. I hold the bucket in front of me, cup a hand inside it for her to drop the ball into. It just about blows her mind! Now and then she gives a sharp little bark of frustration at not understanding, and we switch to some other game for a little while to let her unwind. But even when she is frustrated, I can tell she loves the challenge of learning new things. She WANTS to understand and do what I ask of her.

By the end of this evening's romp, she was beginning to actually get the ball into the bucket now and then, without me having to dodge the bucket around to try to catch the ball.

Next we'll take out a couple more balls, and have her gather more balls at each throw...more balls to put in the bucket before I start throwing again. The bucket is important because I won't always be wearing a coat with large enough pockets for multiple balls. And the bigger task of fetching more balls, one by one, gives me more time to think: "NOW what can I teach the Border Collie?"

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Double Trouble--But Worth It

Not one but TWO escapes from the farm today by the quicksilver canine.

First, she slipped through a sheep pen gate as I struggled to maneuver a load of logs through it, and found a hole in the "fence" between the woodlot and the neighbor's in the blink of an eye. We were right on her tail and retrieved her from the mobile home park down the block within minutes. She had been confined to the vacant sheep pen where we were working, so we had taken her leash off so she wouldn't tangle on the brush we were moving.

Renewing our caution, I kept her on the leash when we were working in the garden, but didn't tie her. She obeys much better when she's dragging the leash, and I can step on it to get her attention if she's ignoring me. She's been respecting the electronet fence across the back yard, even without it being energized, stopping until I lift it and say "come under". But apparently she slipped under it, and we had left both the woodlot and driveway gates unlatched. Before we realized she was gone, a stranger rounded the corner of the barn, calling out to us, "Hey, is this your dog? She was at __ & ___ [5 blocks away]." She seemed totally unabashed...she had made a new friend. "Nice dog," he says.

Rolling my eyes. Restraining my temper. Recalling the most memorable lesson from the AKC Puppy Kindergarten class: If you leave the puppy in the living room, and it chews up the couch, roll up a news paper and hit your self over the head with it, saying sternly, "Don't leave the puppy with the couch! Don't leave the puppy with the couch!" Right. And don't take your eye off the Border Collie for an instant. Ever.

But there were many high points, too. This morning, we reviewed yesterday's progress and added one more command: "Leave it." With her in a "Down" "Stay", I would place the tennis ball a couple feet away from her and say "Leave it." She was pretty good at waiting until I said "Pick it up" and "Drop it in my hand." Later in the wood lot, when I was moving chunks of firewood, I asked her to pick up the small ones and put them on the woodpile. She actually seemed to understand...and even left them on the woodpile.


Later, we decided to merge the two groups of sheep and see what would happen. It's that time at the end of breeding when we try to reintegrate all the little breeding groups into one or two larger groups, to minimize chores. With 3 official breeding rams this season, as well as a couple intact male market lambs, it can be tricky. Rams will often try to kill each other.

Tuesday, we put the two younger breeding rams (White Crow, 9 months, and Patchface, a year and 9 months) together with the market lambs (i.e., two smaller ram lambs plus some ewe lambs). There was some pushing and ramming between Crow and Patchface, but they seemed to settle down pretty quickly. We ran all the mature ewes into the pen with Braithe, our senior ram.

My goal is to start Sookie working with the market lambs, since they're smaller and much less assertive than the big ewes and rams. I thought maybe we could work them with Patchface and Crow in the group, but Patchface seemed pretty assertive towards the dog. So...could we actually get Braithe, Patchface, and Crow--500+ lbs. of testosterone-infused muscle--to peacefully coexist in the same pen?

I took Sookie into the Green Barn Pen on the long leash, and drove the young rams and market lambs into the barn with her in tow. She seemed confused, and distracted by all that tempting manure, but she showed some interest in the sheep as well. At one point, one of the rams broke away from the flock and ted back behind me. I called out "Look!" and she actually did! We went after him (and the other one that followed him) and got them back without the rest of the group turning back, too. Then, to the cry of "Put 'em in the barn!" Sookie and I were able to walk the group into the barn. A good beginning.

Then we went to drive Braithe and the ewes over from the pen on the other side of the back yard. First we rounded up a few ewes that hadn't come to meet us at the gate. Sookie paid attention well, and  seemed to be more interested than with the lambs. When we got them gathered at the gate, M. opened the gate and they poured out into the broad grassy lane. Of course they were more interested in eating grass than in going to the barn...but as Sookie and I moved behind them, they quickly changed their minds. Except for a couple older ones, who looped back behind us. I said "Look back!" and turned after them, and--Sookie looked and went the right direction to run them back to the rest of the flock! Then everyone ran to the barn pen.

The barn pen has a particularly nice bale of hay in it at the moment, and Braithe didn't even blink an eye at all the rams in the barn. So, I let the young rams and market lambs out with the rest of the group. There was some sniffing and chasing, but no significant ramming. Braithe spent most of his first couple for penned with other rams, and he and Patchface were penned together ever since his return to the farm last spring; I hoped he would have fond memories of this. We were working nearby, so we kept an eye on them in case violence erupted, but eating seemed to be everyone's top priority. In a few days we'll sort out the lambs, and have a breeding group and a working group.


The end of the working day should have been another session with the tennis ball, but alas, we could not find it. The second one had disappeared a few days earlier. Are the coyotes playing with them and carrying them off? It's a mystery. Sookie looked and looked, and so did I. Disappointing. We went home to dinner and a quiet evening.

As I knitted with Sookie curled in my lap, I pondered the dilemma of the missing ball. We'll have a friend's dog as a house guest starting tomorrow morning, so getting in a good romp before meeting the very bouncy Coby seemed important, not to mention continuing to build on our recent training work. But every time I thought about going to a store 10 days before Christmas, I winced. Eventually, I thought of Luna (Toss's daughter) and her person B. Maybe they had spares?

A phone call and a few minutes later, we were on Luna's doorstep. Luna was her grumpy self about there being another dog, but Sookie displayed excellent manners and turned away with quiet dignity whenever Luna showed her teeth. Sookie entirely ignored the cats, but managed to slip through the cat door to the cat food not once but twice! I didn't want to get her too wound up chasing balls to show off her moves, so I took the risk of testing her on her newest sequence of commands in "public". Like clockwork, on command, she laid down, I placed the ball on the floor nearby, she "leaved it", and on command she picked it up and dropped it in my cupped hands!

Now I'm wondering, can I teach her to fetch tools for me when I'm working? Will she be able to tell the  difference between phillips and flathead screwdrivers?

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Triple Triumph

This training of Sookie is a slow unfolding--significant progress each day, but it's only visible if I look really closely. The reminders applies to all of my life, especially to all my relationship: be in the moment, pay attention, expect perfection, look for the successes and not the failures.

She still runs away and doesn't seem to hear me, if she has slipped out of the house yard fence without the leash, or if she is intent on tracking some enticing smell on the way to the romping ground. I need to bite my tongue rather than fruitlessly call again and again. If she doesn't want to give me her attention, when she is off-leash, there is no way I can get it. I can only trust that in time, she will be so completely interested in what I will ask of her next that she will always have a bit of her attention on me, ready for the next adventure. That, and eventually the smells of the farm may seem less compellingly exotic to her city-raised nose.

I was distracted and aloof at the romping ground this morning. We actually didn't get there until this afternoon, because of a thought-provoking meeting this morning followed by various follow-up calls and emails. I had taken my pruning shears, and let her play on her own while I cut out wild grape vines that are a potential tripping hazard. We tossed the ball a little bit, with her dancing and throwing her head around and rapidly mouthing the ball every time she brought it. She was coming right to me and letting me take it from her mouth, but it was a lot of dodging and grabbing to get it, and my leather gloves saved my hands from a lot of little bruises from accidentally colliding with her teeth and jaws.


This evening we went out again at dusk. When I let her off the leash, she went out looking for the ball, round and round the Hugelkulture piles, but couldn't find it. It's hard to see in the clumpy grass in the twilight. I wandered around looking, too. When I found it, I called her to me, and she eventually came. I pointed at the ball with my outstretched arm and pointing finger, saying "Look!" She would look deep into my eyes, tongue hanging out, trying to discern what I wanted. "Look!" I would point again. Her gaze on my face was unwavering, 100% Border Collie intensity.

We've done this before, many times, when I'm trying to show her a lost ball that I found. I usually start 5 or 6 feet from the ball, then gradually get closer until my finger is nearly touching the ball, repeating the command while looking at the ball myself. I lock eyes with her and then deliberately shift my line of sight to the ball, hoping she'll follow. I have never gotten her to pay attention to my hand, unless to paw at it and examine it.

But this evening, when I got within a couple feet of the ball, she shifted her gaze to my hand, and instantly pounced on the ball. Success! We did it a couple more times through the evening, and I could tell she had finally begun to grasp the concept of looking where I was pointed/looking, instead of at my face.

This seems trivial, but in working sheep it's critical. If she's sent out to gather the flock, and can't find them, I might need to direct her towards them by pointing them out and saying "look!", if verbal left/right commands aren't working to direct her towards them. And if she leaves one behind when gathering the flock, I'll need to tell her to "Look back" so she can return for the straggler.

That seems like a small difference in commands--"Look" and "Look back". Someone who has struggled to convey the simple concept of "sit" to a mere ordinary dog might wonder whether a dog could tell the difference between the two. Well, my old Toss not only knew these very similar-sounding commands, she understood "here" (i.e., come here) and "here here!" (pay attention to something else over this way) as totally different commands.

These similar commands underscore the vital importance of the trainer being consistent, especially in the beginning as the dog and handler get to know and understand one another, or when introducing new commands and concepts. In many ways, training Sookie is all about training myself. I must be very consistent in my use of words and gestures if I'm to succeed in communicating with her.

Another crucial aspect of the "look!" command is that it is a step in breaking her preoccupation with looking directly at me for commands. This is often an artifact of conventional obedience training, where the emphasis is on having the dog's visual attention on you at all times, as it awaits commands...unlike in a herding situation where the dog must keep its eyes on the sheep to control them, and only listen to the handler.


Once we found the ball, I just sat in one place and let her bring it to me. No gloves this evening (it was a very nice afternoon, still pleasant at dusk without being totally bundled up), so it wasn't long before my fingers were cringing from crashing into her teeth as she mouthed the ball and tossed her head each time she brought it back. OK, time for the next level. Now she needs to PLACE the ball in my cupped hands, instead of flirting with me and making me take it from her. "Drop it in my hands" I tell her, over and over, as she dances around me. Later we'll work on the all-important non-specific "drop it"--usually meaning "put down that disgusting dead thing you found before you get one step close to me!"

Total attention now, and total patience. I need to respond lightning quick when she releases the ball, to close my hands on it just when it is loose in her mouth. And I need to NOT take the ball unless she releases it. I begin by using a lighter and lighter touch to take the ball from her, until I'm not grabbing it enough to get it away from her. She WANTS me to throw the ball, so she is invested in this. How can she get me to throw the ball? I have to make this segue gradually enough that she doesn't lose interest, I have to throw the ball now and then, we have to succeed. And I have to make a big deal out of each success, however small.

As my touch lightens, as we succeed a few times, as the edge wears off her energy at bit from chasing and bringing back the ball,  suddenly I can see that she GETS it--she understands. She's still dancing and tossing and chomping and generally being a moving target--but if my hands are cupped in the right place at the right time, the ball is somehow released into them, falling just fraction of an inch. YAY! YOU DID IT! GOOD DOG! and she is petted lavishly before the ball is thrown again. Suddenly she's releasing the ball into my hand with less and less dancing, and dropping it from higher (measured in fractions of an inch, still). What a great feeling!


Of course, throughout this process, there are many times when the ball is dutifully dropped, but it lands on the ground instead of in my hands. I could have used this to work on "drop it", but thought that would confuse the issue. Instead, we took advantage of the situation to also work on "pick it up", which she also had figured out by the end of the session. Not that she's graceful, reliable, prompt, or accurate, but she knows what I mean. We have communicated: we have "created a shared meaning", in the words of my college communication class many years ago. The rest will come with practice (another word for "play").

So, this evening, we "got" three new important concepts/commands in one session. Considering that a week ago, she wouldn't even bring the ball back to me, I'm pretty amazed at the rate of progress we've made.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Dog Tired

Every day is full and busy, more than ever, with Sookie in the picture.

We go to the "romping pen" every morning and evening for a 15-30 minute session that is play/exercise mixed with training. Additional training happens on the way there and back, and really whenever she's with me and whatever we do. It is mentally exhausting for me, after awhile, even though it's very rewarding for both of us.

She is an amazingly intelligent dog and a quick learner. I joked to Dad last night that after all these years, I would have to learn calculus. "Whatever for?" he asked. "Because I'm going to run out of things to teach this dog in a few years, and I may have to teach her calculus."

When I met Sookie, she and her owner and his other BC, Lucy, were playing with a tennis ball. The rules were: A. throws the ball. If Lucy catches it, it's Lucy's ball to dance around with and dare everyone else to try to get. If Sookie catches it, it's Lucy's ball to...and Sookie would tag after, run circles around Lucy, etc. A common dynamic between an older dog and a younger dog.

In solo play, this amounted to Sookie playing keep-away with me. Eventually she would bring the ball somewhere near me, and I would manage to snag it out from under her nose at some point to throw it again...or pick it up while she was distracted with the Hugelkulture pile.

When she had the ball, she would lie down "on command" at a distance IF she were already stopped and just standing there, and was ready to lie down. But when she was running, there was no stopping her. Ever. She would eventually honor a "come here" command, and then lie down (on command) at my feet with much ado.

This was fun for both of us, to a point, but it all added up to a lot of exercise for me, trying to get the ball back to throw it to exercise her. And it wasn't a very good foundation for her eventual work with sheep. Before she can go in with the sheep, she needs to lie down instantly on command, no matter where she is. And she needs to "come" when called. Without these two basics, I would have no control at all with her off-leash in with the sheep.

So. This is how smart this dog is: Sunday morning I got tired of the "keep-away" game. I had figured out that she would "come"and "bring the ball" much better if I were squatting down, so I did that. I wouldn't throw the ball unless she would let me get it without me moving from my squatting position. I did a lot of reaching! By the end of the session, she had figured out to bring me the ball and leave it on the ground near me. If it was too far, I would fruitlessly reach, and she would eventually pick it up and put it closer to me.

Sunday afternoon, she clearly remembered this new rule: if she wants the ball thrown, she has to bring the ball to me. After squatting a few times, I stood up, and she had to bring the ball where I could reach it from standing up. Again, lots of reaching! But she figured that out, and was "coming" pretty reliably even when I was standing.

Monday morning, I made her "hand" me the ball without me reaching down to the ground. She was doing great by the end of the session...though an on-looker would see something like the blur of a hummingbird at a feeder, as she dances back and forth around my legs darting her muzzle with the ball between my hands, mostly too fast for me to grab the ball. When I do manage to get my hands on the ball, she releases it to me instantly...much better than Toss ever did. I would have to activate pressure points on Toss's jaws to get her to release a ball, until she learned that the hand coming under her chin meant "drop". She never honored the word.

This evening, we started working on getting her to drop the ball into my hands. Didn't quite get there, but we were both tired from working sheep and having a lot of visitors today.

Sookie's "come" has vastly improved during these past couple days, too. She hurls herself at me like a  freight train, often running a tight loop or two around me in her enthusiasm before stopping at my feet. I am trying to introduce the concept of "easy" (a slow, controlled walking pace), but it is going to take some practice! Something we work on at the end of a lesson, when that raw energy has worn down a little.

Meanwhile, during these same sessions we worked on "down" wherever she was, especially trying to get her to drop instantly in the middle of a "come". She's made rapid progress, and as of today will do an instant drop mid-run off-leash while we are walking out to the "romping ground". Very impressive!

Now that she is better at "come", as well as being familiar with staying on the garden lanes, she can drag her lead or be entirely off-lead a lot more once we are behind the protective gates of the farm. I still don't trust her not to go explore the neighborhood, after she led me on a 20 minute romp through the neighborhood in my sock feet with no cell phone on her third day here. But little by little, she is learning that her life is fun, safe, and interesting if she hangs out with me and does what I ask.

Tonight, there is no trouble with paws interrupting me while I write. We went to the "romping ground" 3 times today, plus she watched as we moved and worked sheep for several hours. By the end of the day, when I went back out to do one more sheep chore, she opted to stay in her kennel in the house instead of going out with me. I was surprised, but honored her choice. As I write this, she is sound asleep flopped on her side on a folded blanket under the desk. Pooped pup!

I'm pooped, too. Not just physically, but also mentally. This level of training takes a lot of concentration and self-discipline.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Drink Your Dried Fruit

Life is not all about dogs, although sometimes the dog seems to think so. Sometimes it is about warming up and refueling after a long romp/training session on a cool winter morning. And that, of course, means a hot cup of tea...and a little something.

I love dried fruit, but it's so easy to eat a lot. And with the amazing home-dried locally grown fruit that Mom makes for the whole extended family, there is a limited supply. And dried fruit stuck to your teeth is not a whole lot healthier than candy stuck to them.

On my Canadian adventure, I was given a gift of uniquely Canadian tea. It was composed of dried Saskatoon berries, dried blueberries, etc.: all real chunks of fruit. You put a couple teaspoons in a pot, poured on boiling water, stuck it under a cozy for awhile, and presto! Canada summer in a cup! Add a little cream, and it was like ice cream only warm!

Lately I realized I could do the same thing with Mom's dried fruit. I still use a tea bag, but then select a few pieces of complementary flavored dried fruit, and put the big chunks in before pouring the water. When I get to the bottom of the cup of fruity tea, the fruit chunks are delightfully soft and warm to scoop up with the spoon. I get the most enjoyment possible out of a few pieces, and nothing stuck to my teeth.

My winter tea corner now occupies the whole end of the kitchen table, double decker: electric tea kettle, mugs, boxes and bags of tea, tea strainers, homegrown honey (not needed with bit of homegrown stevia or a slice of dried pear) and jars of Mom's dried fruit. Also a jar of candied ginger, because one of Mom's favorite "teas" is just a slice of candied ginger in a cup of hot water. Refreshing and warming.

In the refrigerator, there are more tea fixin's: jars of jam...many flavors, but especially strawberry. Somewhere when I was a child we read about "Russian tea"--plain black tea with a spoonful of strawberry jam mixed in. Also cream or half-and-half.

My current favorite combo is dried home-grown figs in a cup of peach-flavored herbal tea, with a little half-and-half. Hopefully next year we will get a supply of frozen sheep milk/sheep cream laid by, for even more luxurious homegrown winter tea.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Basic Training

Meeting Patchface, Penny and Jenny.

Totally airborne! This great shot was just random chance...there are more photos of just the grass, because she was out of the frame before  the camera and I could respond!

Sookie's toybox...the Hugelkulture pile and waste wool composting area.

 I remembered the camera this morning when we went out for our morning romp/field training session in the East Margin Pen. She is a much easier dog to photograph than any of my other Border Collies, who were/are all camera shy. She's a bit of a ham, but mostly she's like this whether the camera is on her or not.

She continues to amaze me with her ability to learn. The gate/door thing (wait/come through) is coming along nicely, and we're already doing some off-leash work with it at the front door. I try hard to be totally random about it--sometimes I step through and close the door in her face, sometimes I send her through before I go through, all different variations so she learns to listen for the command and not for a particular gesture, time, or routine.

She is a very "footy" dog, with several related habits that I'm trying to change. One is that she is constantly trying to check out the dishes in the kitchen sink, the crumbs on the dining table, etc.--putting her feet up and of course the head follows, with that slim nose reaching out as far as possible. Another is that when I am working at the computer, she frequently paws at me, puts her feet on the chair next to me, etc. She also puts her feet up on the door sometimes when we're approaching it, and sometimes puts her feet up or paws at me when she comes to me.

Most of these behaviors are relatively inconsequential now. But any day--I hope!--we will have wet weather again, and then those sweet spotted paws will be muddy/manurey. It won't be so cute then!

I don't like animals around my food, so cats AND dogs are not allowed on my tables or counters. Discouraging the habit of cleaning up the dishes after me is a challenge, because she usually does it when I'm not in the room. Sometimes I hear tell-tale sounds, and can rush in and reproach her. She clearly knows she isn't supposed to do this! But mostly, I need make sure there isn't a food reward for her searching. The butter dish and crackers that I like to keep on the table during chili season are now in a heavy covered casserole dish, I clear the dishes and food off the table as soon as I get up, and brush off the crumbs. So it looks like once again a dog will teach me to become a better housekeeper! Toss taught me to make my bed...because when the Border Collie comes in from the sheep pens on a muddy day, the bed best be all made up if you want to sleep in clean sheets. A huge part of training a Border Collie is training oneself. That is one reason I've waited so long after Toss's death...wanting to be sure I was ready to retrain myself.

The relentless pawing at me while I'm at the computer has really bugged me, so much that last night I finally put her in her crate so that I could get anything done. It's important that I do this BEFORE I'm irritated with her, so she doesn't associate the crate with punishment. But I really don't want to have to lock her up to work; I like petting her head (at my initiative, not at her demand) while I'm waiting for the stupid little spinning beach ball on my Mac. What to do?

I had an insight today: I'm rewarding her with attention (what she wants, because the computer is getting it) by brushing away her paws each time she puts them up. It becomes a game, like the "Slap Hands" game Dad used to play with us when we were kids. So today, I've disciplined myself to instantly get up and go do something else--even just walk in a circle around the room--while studiously ignoring her, the moment that paw comes up. Also, I try to remember what she wants--attention and praise--and give it to her when she is respecting my desire to focus on the computer.

The first few computer sessions throughout the day, I didn't get much done on the computer, but I did get a lot of exercise. This evening has been a major improvement. For awhile, she went and lay in the crate on her own accord. Now she is laying quietly at my feet. She's also motivated me to get up and finish reupholstering the dining chairs, improve the barricade protecting the cat box, put some linens away, etc. Fortunately I'm a bit ADD, and I frequently switch tasks anyhow.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

A Good First Day

Today I took Sookie around the main parts of the farm, just getting familiar with her, and letting her learn her way around the farm a bit. I kept her on a long lead, so that she couldn't get into (too much) trouble. That way I wouldn't have to correct her very much, we could put off some unhappy lessons like the electric fences, and we could just focus on bonding and trust building, along with me assessing her current level of training, inclinations, style, etc., and introducing a few basic commands.

Sookie is very much a "nose dog". Toss was not...she could be 3 inches from a hidden ball and not find it, and she rarely tracked things with her nose. If she couldn't see it, it didn't exist. I noticed Sookie's nosiness as soon as we headed towards my car, after her previous owner had driven away leaving the two of us in the fenced dog park.  As soon as I let her out the gate (on leash, of course!), she made a bee-line to my car. Sort of. Her nose was to the pavement the whole time--she was barely looking at the car. I realized instantly that she was following the scent of her blanket that A.M. had carried over and placed in my back seat, with one corner dragging the ground. I opened the door as she approached it, and she literally followed her nose up and into the back seat without a pause!

This morning we spent some time out in the East Margin Pen, where there is plenty of room to run, and dog-proof fences that aren't electric. I took the tennis ball with us, but even when I unclipped her lead, she wasn't very interested. Too much to smell!

Our farm waste disposal area is in that pen, and she took special delight in a composting pile of old wool. Why didn't I think to take my camera? The look on her face was priceless when she came up for air after burrowing in the loose pile, festooned with dreadlocks of various natural colors.

Penny, Jenny and Patchface came up to stand at the fence and meet her, curious. The ewes stomped a bit, and Sookie barked at them and ran back and forth, but those new smells in the grass were far more enticing. Still, she came back to watch and bark at the sheep several times.

This off-leash time, in addition to all the on-leash time we spent before and after, gave me a chance to evaluate some of her previous training, and get some ideas for her training program for the next little while. She'll lie down instantly on command at a distance if she's stopped already, and she'll instantly come on command (at a dead run!), but she won't stop running and lie down if I call her and then tell her to lie down. Turning her "lie down" into a full "stop" is an essential foundation for her future herding training.

A big challenge has been going through doors and gates. In a normal home, it's not a big deal if the dog bolts out as soon as the door is opened, like a racehorse out of a starting gate. But on the farm, I need her to let me make the decision about whether, and when, she is coming through a gate. For safety reasons, this is something I try to teach all "my" dogs, even those that are just guests for a few days: "wait" until I say "come through". This is a very valuable habit because it means the handler's voice, not the physical gate, is the barrier. I can open a gate and get something through it (a sheep, a bucket, a garden cart, etc.), without having the dog in the way, and end up with the dog on whichever side I want. It's also important for the safety of the dog, because some of our gates are springy and can startle a dog by suddenly "biting" them. This can lead to even worse bolting, as the dog becomes afraid of being attacked by the gate, and therefore bolts through as quickly as possible to try to reduce the risk. Of course, this just increases everyone's risk.

She is such a quick learner! The habit of bolting can be really hard to break, especially with an excited, energetic dog like Sookie. But by the end of the day, with many gate and door experiences as we puttered around at various small tasks on the farm and at home, she had clearly gotten an idea of what I want. In several situations (that I noticed), she actually stopped as we approached an already-open gate, BEFORE I gave the command to "wait". Coming and going out the front door of the house is getting calmer, too.

How do I teach this? First, I have the dog on the lead close to me as we approach the door. I arrange for the dog to be on the door post side of my body, so that the dog will try to pass between me and the door post instead of between me and the door. I ask the dog to "sit" and "wait", and praise both commands (this builds on commands the dog already knows): "GOOD sit! GOOD wait". I wait for the dog to relax a bit, for the attention to be at least a little diverted from the door. Then I slowly begin to operate the door, reinforcing both commands. If the dog stands up, I cease the "sit" command, and continue repeating and praising the "wait" command. If the dog tries to press towards the door as I open it, I interfere with my outstretched foot blocking her path. If I have to, I close the door again and walk the dog off a couple steps, starting over with the "sit" and "wait". Eventually, I manage to get the situation set up to where the door is open, and the dog is standing or sitting near it, without struggling to get out...hopefully paying attention to me, and not the door or whatever is beyond. My foot may or may not still be between the dog and the opening, depending on the level of success we're having. From this position, when things are calm, I give the "come through!" command at the same time I remove my foot and step away from the opening so that the dog has the freedom to step through. Then I myself through after the dog, and praise the dog profusely. I try to keep the leash fairly short but slack) throughout, so that if the dog does rocket through at the last moment, she'll hit the end of the lead and stop, and will be close enough to enjoy her reward of praise and ear scritches.

This sort of training is, obviously, very time consuming and requires a great deal of patience and attention. But the payoff, long term, is significant. Eventually, like Toss, there will be little need for leash, doors or gates--at least when she is with me. Our mutual bond will control her movements, as she remembers to ask me for instructions at each threshold. As with Toss, over time, our communication with one another will become so refined that the question and answer--"may I go through now?" "yes, please!" will transacted effortlessly, even wordlessly, through the briefest of tones and gestures. It will become part of a grand dance that we do, that incredibly complicated dance I call "farming".

She is pretty much a poster child for the importance of crate training. She is happy being in the crate, and instantly relaxes once she's there, although she will sometimes make a feeble attempt to avoid my request that she go in it. When she just won't stop pestering me, and I need both hands to type, I'll give her some lovin' and then put her in the crate for awhile so we can both chill a bit. Also, when I've had to be off-farm today, I know that she's been safe and not getting into any trouble, because she's in the crate.

As you might imagine, she is in the crate now. Otherwise, I would not have gotten this written!

Friday, November 30, 2012

A New Beginning with A New Partner

For many years, I've shunned any type of match-making service, even the few well-intentioned friends who've offered solutions to my choice to "travel solo" for the past few years. Pre-internet, no matter how lonely I was, I never even looked at the "Personal" ads, let alone wrote one. Especially not across state lines. If I was going to find a perfect partner, destiny/God/random chance was going to have to dump them in my lap; I wasn't going to go looking very hard. Too busy.

The internet and cell phones vastly increased the ease of long-distance communication, opening up myriad new possibilities for meeting people close and far. But I watched so many friends struggle with the also vastly increased possibilities for disaster, and quickly decided that's not for me.

It's not that I'm not willing to take risks and try new things; I just look to farming, not relationships, for my gambling fun. Some rewards are worth taking risks for. Some risks are just too horrible to think about. Some odds are just not that good. Farming, yes; blind dates, no way.

If there's anything life has taught me, it's that every year brings big changes that affect me and others, often in very different ways. Friendships, even partnerships, can melt away like winter snow yielding to a warm March wind. The person I meet one day is not the same person I know a year later. Impermanence has characterized my relationships, whether cohabiting or long distance. Year after year of losses to death, career changes, relationship changes. Year after year of people coming and going at the farm (let alone in my personal life) left me deeply weary, tired of beginning each farming season with a whole new cast of characters.

Measuring myself now against the yardstick of my past, I've become fairly cynical about relationships in general. I have become more social, yet more solo, as the years go by. I often forget to long for the enduring symbiotic relationship with someone else that I used to think mandatory for my happiness.

So it was quite improbable that one day in early October I would be sitting at my computer and have the name of a rather obscure match-making service come to mind. Even more improbable that I would look it up and go to the web site. But I did. God only knew why.

A profile immediately caught my eye. The next step, of course, was to write my own profile and send it in for consideration as a possible match. At least a sort of a change of pace from filling out job applications. Into the wee hours of the  morning, I typed away, answering the questionnaire, providing references, so many details to think about, so much soul searching.

I sat back in mild shock when I realized that I had pressed "send". Commitment...if not to a particular relationship, at least to the idea that I could consider another relationship. Ack! What was I thinking? God only knew!

The same night, others far away were busy at their screens. Within a few days, I received word that the face that had caught my eye initially had caught someone else's first. I was surprised to feel a little pang of disappointment. I hadn't been hoping for anything, remember?

But the day I sent in my profile for approval, someone else far away sent one in, also. The person processing the profiles decided to skip the formalities, and put us in touch with one another directly. There ensued a flurry of emails: questions, answers, stories, photos. Fear and hope, doubt and elation swirled inside me. Whatever had I been thinking to start down this road? It was definitely a slippery slope...and a long one: from Lawrence, KS to Springfield, MO.

Photos. Not for decades have I envisioned myself teaming up with a redhead with flashy sunglitzing. Yes, there was one major crush decades ago...SO not my type now! But by the time I saw the photo, I'd already been captivated by the text, and I mentally steeled my will to ignore the trendy look of this total stranger. Other things were much more important than that intriguing face--grinning from ear to ear, laughing eyes brimming over with golden glints.

Our work and travel schedules made it difficult to find a time to meet in person. Also I was adamant that I needed to finish the major interior renovations on my little home before gallivanting off to the next state to turn my entire life on its ear.

Then for a long time, the internet was silent, and I thought perhaps the opportunity to partner with this intriguing stranger had slipped away from me after all. I was busy in the ways October is always busy at the farm, riding the emotional and physical roller coaster of early freezing weather interspersed with beautiful weather, taking sheep to slaughter, picking green tomatoes the night of the first freeze, farm help bailing out at the most inopportune time, a million things to do to make the most of autumn and prepare for winter.

The matchmaker emailed to ask if I'd heard anything for awhile; she hadn't, either. We presumed that someone else more local had appeared on the scene, and jogged off into the sunset with that amazing athletic redhead. I promised myself a good little self-indulgent wallow in loneliness, self-pity and cynicism as soon as I had gotten the upper hand on the major rebuilding of the kitchen floor. There is nothing like washing dishes in the bathroom sink to remind oneself that sometimes "traveling solo" is actually a very good thing.

But finally the floor was done, and out of the blue, an email came once again, as if weeks of silence had not passed. We decided to meet in a park halfway between Lawrence and Springfield: a public place, no one's home turf. Safe. But scary. After all, this stranger would probably be coming home with me, hopefully forever.

As I drove through the sun-drenched November hills on a impossibly warm, glorious afternoon, I thought about the millions of arranged marriages of the past millenia, and today in other corners of the globe. I thought about mail-order brides who left everything they knew to start a new life in a strange place, with strangers in unfamiliar lands. What would it be like for this stranger I was about to meet? Basic compatibility had been ascertained, a mutuality of goals--but there was no way to gage whether we would actually like each other. Can I learn to love a stranger, when my heart's been broken so many times? Can they love me? Can we live and work together if we end up not loving each other as much as in the fairy tales? What HAD I been thinking to Google that match-making service?

Pulling the car into the parking lot, seeing the truck parked off to the side, goodness, it's really happening! Fumbling with the seat belt, watching at a distance, being watched. I want to move faster, I want to move slower, now hands are reaching out to clasp across a diminishing distance in a vacant field, smiling eyes laughing in the sunlight.... I had meant to bring the camera to capture this moment forever, but perhaps it is too personal for that.

Clearly, a Power Greater than Myself has once again worked in mysterious ways, bringing us together. How else could we each have decided on the same night to contact the same match-maker? And how else could it ever have worked?

Home now, together, elated and exhausted. This will be fine, for all of us. We stand at the beginning of a long adventure, Sookie and me.

Thank you,  Mo-Kan Border Collie Rescue, for playing matchmaker. Thank you, A.M., for loving this beautiful dog enough to realize she needs a demanding job on a sheep farm instead of endless days off in a back yard. Thank you, God, for guiding us all.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Why Not Sell and Go?

I'm going through and finishing off some half-finished blog entries from the past couple years. This was written in 2010.

This essay belongs to both blogs, The Rainbow Covering and Reports from the Farm. My life belongs to both worlds, the natural world of the farm, and the spiritual world of my Christian journey. But wait--the farm is God's creation; that's spiritual...and my Christian journey is so deeply fed and supported by the practical day-in, day-out work of the farm. The "two" worlds are inseparable.

Today, for the umpteenth time, someone suggested "the solution" to "my problem".

"The problem", as usual, being that I am a) very land-poor at the moment and b) even more time-poor...a) in spite of and b) because of the fact that I am farming as well as working a full-time job off-farm, which is obviously too much for one person.

"The solution" usually begins with the person asking, "Look, I know it's none of my business, but how much equity do you have in this place? You're never going to win this [insert current regulatory/local politics struggle]; why don't you just sell the whole thing and buy a place in [insert name of more rural county that doesn't have such restrictive zoning regulations], and then you can live a nice, sane, peaceful life for a change?"

I really do try to keep an open mind. When folks make this suggestion, I don't necessarily try to rationalize my decision to stay and keep struggling to them (after all, it's my decision and my life; if they don't "get it" now they probably never will). But I do try to honestly, once again, put all the issues, assets, and liabilities on the table and give them a good looking-over.

Today it was one of my Old German Baptist acquaintances that suggested this, and for some reason that gave me some new insights.

He had offered to drop by and share his construction wisdom on the proposed remodeling project at 501 North St., the farm's "little brown house". We spent the better part of an hour going over the plans and fleshing out some of the details, but I could tell he was thinking grave thoughts about the whole thing.

"Why not just keep the big house, and sell this? Or better yet, sell the whole thing and move to Franklin County." My first response was to tell him what really special soil we have here...I often quip "I'd move to ____, but I just can't figure out how to take my soil and groundwater with me." Then I told him about my rock-solid understanding that God put me here to serve him in a way like Noah--building the farm as an ark for a multitude of species, safe from the pesticide-poisoned world out there.

The mention of Franklin county brought an odd sense of dissonance as I pondered his words. Mostly folks recommend I sell out and move to Leavenworth County, just north of the farm. Then I realized: he was suggesting his community, not mine. Many of the Old German Baptists live in Franklin County, south of Douglas county.

And that lead me to reflect on an increasingly real consideration for sticking it out and staying here: Here is where my people are.

Here is where my people are. And that is my greatest treasure.

Sustainable Farming in a Warm Winter

This post was written in early winter, 2012, and only now finished.

Good article on an important topic:

Long, sustained cold weather helps kill grasshopper eggs in the soil, as well as other types of insect eggs. But there are many countervailing forces at work; humidity encourages a killing fungus among grasshoppers, so a bumper crop of nymphs in the spring may fizzle in a hot, humid June before doing much damage. Likewise, we could constantly till the soil during a mild winter like this, to expose as many grasshopper eggs as possible to the killing cold of a sharp winter night, even if the days are mild. But that would dry out the soil, and expose it to erosion by the wind, and disturb the beneficial creatures sleeping beneath the surface, like the salamander we found a couple years ago and didn't kill because we weren't using a power tiller.

My choice to avoid even "certified organic" tampering with "God and Mother Nature" is based on the premise that if we grow a wide variety of stuff, some things will do well in any given year, even if some fail. I believe that true "sustainability" is found not in heroic measures to save a particular planting of a particular crop, but rather to use the least possible effort/inputs to raise the most we can of something, anything, everything. With the diversity of livestock and veggies, sheep eat weeds (if that's all we grow) and chickens eat grasshoppers (more profit there), so even total crop failure produces something.

"Least effort" means avoiding many conventional and organic practices: irrigation (unless we need wet soil to harvest carrots, for example), raised beds, double digging, biodynamic compost, pest control, fancy packaging, etc.--basically, anything that takes extra human or industrial energy. It means putting seeds or plants in the ground so that they grow naturally, and harvesting and marketing with a minimum of cosmetic "fuss" (trimming, bunching, and pre-packaging). We do rinse the dirt off our veggies, because we want to keep our dirt on the farm, and not transmit weed seeds off-farm. We also rinse veggies to remove "field heat" and slow the metabolism so that things store better.

We also tend to be sparing about "forcing the season" for most crops, despite our selective use of row covers and the high tunnel. Forced plants are not healthy, happy plants. Tomatoes planted outside from seed bear nearly as early as those started early in a greenhouse, grown too long in the pot, and set out in soil colder than they like. There is usually little return for extraordinary effort to keep tomato plants from freezing in the fall...the quality of fruit is declining rapidly as the day length shortens, and it's better to just pick all the green fruit and ripen indoors or make green tomato pickles. The plants we cover are ones that like the cold, and the covers keep the tips from frost-biting so that quality is better. We also cover crops for practical handling reasons, like keeping the silver maple and elm seeds and autumn leaves from ending up in your salad without tedious hand-sorting as we harvest.

Doing less work for each crop means we can do more work on other things...and a mild winter also gives us time to catch up on things we usually struggle to squeeze in during the growing season. We are glad for a mild winter this year, for having time to lay down wood chips on muddy paths, to begin clearing and mulching long-fallowed garden beds that will be put back in cultivation this year, to sort and repair tools and generally get ready for the coming season.

There is an emotional level to sustainability, as well as practical--our inner energy, as well as physical energy, should be conserved and used wisely. A great deal of that has to do with reducing occasions for resentment, frustration, disappointment, and anger that we often feel when things don't go well. A key to this is remembering that "expectations are pre-meditated resentments". If we farm with hopes instead of expectations, leaving room for different outcomes than we are hoping for, then it can be easier to accept gracefully that things have not worked out as we foresaw.

Farming IS "a slot machine, not a Coke machine". If we expect that we will get X volume of crop from planting Y volume of seed, we are sure to be stressed. Instead, we plant seeds (mainly for things that have grown well in the past under these circumstances) and offer basic amenities (superior soil, natural rain water, attempts at weed control, a blanketing mulch to moderate extremes), and have faith that something will come of those modest efforts. It usually does. With wonder, we watch new sprouts emerge from the ground. With anticipation, we watch luscious leaves unfurl into succulent salad greens. With gratitude, we reap a harvest that has grown mainly without any effort on our part. The wonder is that it happens season after season, year after year, way more reliable than a slot machine...except for those few rare years that just go wrong. Even then, likely something went right or got done...and next year will be different.

One of the hardest things for beginning farmers is to have faith in this process of trusting that on the whole, things will go right and a crop will result. And to let go of the mostly erroneous notion that if we intervene with every little thing that seems to be going wrong, we will turn the course of things in a significant way. It's easy to overlook the energy--physical and emotional--that can be invested in watering to "save a crop" during a drought season when no water can be enough, compared to the small investment in simply making a second planting, mulched well, so that hopefully one or the other will be at the right stage to produce despite the drought, and perhaps both will bear full fruit after all, doubling the crop.

Mabel and the Hog--a Slaughterhouse Experience

Time is flying so quickly! There have been so many wonderful things going on, so many huge things going on, so many intense and uncertain things going on, that it is hard to stop long enough to write them down.

What happened today was so amazing that it demands my full attention, documented by recording the experience in this post.

It was a pretty routine take-cull-ewes-to-the-processing-plant day. We got everything ready last night, loaded them at Oh-Dark-Thirty (a.k.a. 5 a.m.), remembered to check the gas gage and take appropriate action, and chugged down the road to Bowsers Meat Processing.

There was a short wait while they did the two hogs in line before us, starting the morning off at a leisurely pace. As we whiled away the time on the back loading dock, another batch of hogs came in. The folks wandered over to talk to us after they unloaded--unexpected until we realized they are fellow Farmer's Market vendors. We rarely see one another except across the lot or on the way to the port-a-potty on Saturday mornings, so it was nice to exchange a few words.

When we went back inside, they were skinning our first ewe. That left Mabel alone in the kill pen, but the market vendor's hogs were in the pen right beside her. She was a little anxious about being the only sheep (just as she is at home if  she is separated from the flock for some reason), and "bahhed" a couple half-hearted protests. We spoke soothingly to her from across the room, while focusing mostly on the   skinning operation with the other ewe. Seeing the carcasses is important to us, because only without the skin can we really fully understand the body condition of our animals...wool hides a lot of fat and/or bones.

I glanced over at Mabel, and saw that she had turned to face the hogs. In fact, she had stuck her head through the bars of the kill pen, into the hog pen. Then I saw the hog! He moved over and touched noses with her. I expected her to pull away, because hogs can be pretty predatory with non-hog animals that they perceive as "food", and sheep are pretty wary about ANY new animal, even if it's just a sheep they don't know yet (or a friend that's just been sheared).

But she didn't pull away. Not even when the hog began exploring her face. She held perfectly still, not panicked or afraid, while the hog's wiggly snout moved over her cheek from nose to ear. I was poised to shout an alarm if the hog bit her. I've skinned out hog heads, years ago when I worked for Bowser. They have very sharp omnivores' teeth. In my imagination, the hog suddenly turned into a bloodthirsty monster and ripped poor Mabel's face off. Not so far-fetched when you consider that by this time I'd seen most of Mabel's right ear disappear temporarily into the hog's mouth, only to be released when the hog suddenly became interested in her eye. It  worked its mouth around her eye, then moved back to the ear. The only thing that kept me from screaming was the fact that Mabel had not tried to back off or stop the hog's overtures in any way.

By this time, my co-farmer, BH, had moved to my side. "He's calming her down," he observed. He has an almost uncanny understanding of herd animals sometimes, a real gift. I realized how quiet she had become, after her initial complaints about being flock-less. I watched the hog with a more open mind. Maybe he wasn't sizing up a meal, after all.

I realized that Mabel was relaxed. She was perfectly free to withdraw her head from between the bars and move a long way from the hogs. But she didn't. She stood perfectly still, eyes soft and not scared, and let the hog's face move alongside hers.

I realized the hog wasn't smacking his lips and salivating like some fiendish monster. He was gently lipping at Mabel's ear and face, caressing even. He withdrew slightly for a moment, and she stayed in place, apparently waiting for more of his exploration. He resumed after a pause, beginning with        sniffing her nose, then lipping at her eye and putting her ear in his mouth. He toyed with the plastic tag in her ear, and I held my breath, worried, that he might grab the tag and pull it out of her ear. But no, he  gently released her ear again.

After several minutes of this, she slowly withdrew her head from between the rails, and calmly waited for the rest of her time.

Usually, my sheep are afraid of the hogs--in fact, Mabel had NOT wanted to enter the building with the first few hogs in it, even though she had willingly stepped off the truck into the loading pen. It was very strange to see a sheep interact with a hog like this.

When I shared this novel experience with a friend later, they wondered whether it had changed my attitude about slaughtering my livestock. Now that I had witnessed this "act of compassion", would I have doubts about the ethics and morality of sending my sheep to be slaughtered.

Well, no. My thoughts on this haven't changed. Because my thoughts on this are very, very secure.

Mabel did not get to choose the time of her death. Well, I won't either. That means someone else (most likely God or a virus) will be choosing my death, just as I chose hers. Her death could also have been chosen by God or a virus, or a stomach worm, or a coyote. In most of those cases, it would have been much more drawn out and stressful for Mabel.

The death I chose for Mabel was mercifully quick, as always. A little stress from unfamiliar surroundings...probably akin to my experience of flying to Winnipeg about 7 years ago. A stranger stepping in to offer some unknowable sort of comfort or distraction. And then, in less than the blink of an eye, gone. I am not alone in thinking that I would wish this same death for myself were I suffering from a terminal ailment. Callous? Not the least. Pragmatic: "Natural causes" tend to be slow and full of pain and suffering. As I've said before, the slaughterhouse is the most humane end possible for a sheep life.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Signs of Summer

[ I have not written here for over a year. Farming solo AND renovating AND working full-time off the farm has taken their toll on a lot of things. I think I'm back now.]

Back in late February or early March, I stepped outside one day, and Nature shrieked at me: IT's THE MIDDLE OF APRIL!!!!" Something in the robins' song; some smell in the air; the first mosquito seeking my arm; a hundred little clues added up to only one possible conclusion: Spring was in full tilt, at least a month early.

Before that moment, we had been chugging along at the farm feeling very content with the work we were doing, cleaning up several year's worth of neglect. This year, finally, I have enough help and good help at that (another post). In fact, it seemed like we were ahead of the calendar with both training and action. But in that moment, I realized that we were suddenly a month behind.

In the past few days, I've seen dragonflies flying, fireflies hatching from their nymphs to light up the night, hot weather plants breaking dormancy. All the spring perennials have bloomed, and we're starting to see irises and soon peonies around town. All the fruit frees bloomed during March, when usually the trees are still bare and some late pruning can be done. The garter snakes have been active for weeks; scarcely a day goes by without seeing one in the garden or pasture. The praying mantis egg cases I'd intended to sell at Farmer's Market (still 2 weeks away) are time I'll store them in the fridge. Some growers are harvesting asparagus already, weeks early. Morels, that May delight, are thronging in the woods.

Off the farm, I've seen pond turtles sunning, bullfrogs in the slough, herons fishing along the banks. One diligent farmer has his soybeans in, standing several inches tall now.

It's wrong. It's scary. What will summer be, if March is in the high 80s? Alternatively, if we get the least frost now, the magnitude of devastation will be unimaginable and will last for years.

The losses caused by this unseasonable weather are already mounting. Spring greens are our mainstay at Farmer's Market from April to early June. It's too hot to plant them, plus we're busy putting in hot weather crops now in case summer brings even hotter temperatures and drought. So we're missing an entire growing season this spring. The greens we have are growing too fast for us to harvest, even if we could market them.

Traditions are at risk. If peonies normally are the "Memorial Day flower", how barren the graves will be two months from now! My usual birthday treats, roses and asparagus, will have come and gone. Etc.

Keeping a record of this unusual season is a good reason for me to start blogging here again.