Sunday, November 25, 2007

Frosty the Frog

Speaking of Thanksgiving, one little froggie has an extra thanks to give to my oldest daughter, Micah, this holiday. While puttering around outside yesterday, she dicovered him slow-motion swimming under a sheet of ice in our tiny goldfish pond. Usually, frogs burrow down in the mud and muck this time of year and wait out the spring, but this little unfortunate chose a "pond" without mud or muck. By the time he figured out that he couldn't burrow into the thick black rubber of the bottom, it was 20 some degrees and he'd been iced over.

Every spring, we find the bodies of one or two frogs, who have met exactly this fate. So finding a living, albeit half frozen and brown as mud frog in the fish pond was a nicer surprise. Micah broke the ice ceiling and rescued "Frosty". We weren't sure he'd survive the real and actual frog pond at the edge of the woods, so we brought him inside and gave hime a suite at the "eft motel", otherwise known as our big mucky living room terrarium. He settled in nicely, "defrosting" as Micah put it, enough to turn a healthy froggy green around the edges.

So, here he is: Frosty the frog, another little life under our care.


I Love Thanksgiving.
It is one of those rare holidays that makes complete and perfect sense to me, a deep breath, a pause in which to appreciate a little.

We always do Thanksgiving here, at home. With family coming by to share this special time. We have a few traditions too: 1) I always cook. Too, too much food. And usually, there is some strange adventurous dish that takes up a lot of time and doesn't quite work. Last year it was Boston Brown Bread boiled in cans. Let me tell you, this dish was only memorable its humor. 2) We use the quiet time before the meal to draw or write "Thankful pictures". We share these before we get down to turkey. 3)Usually, the kids involve everyone in some sort of game. It was "Snap" this year. Last year "Uno Attack".
Mostly, we just enjoy each others' company, take that deep, deep breath, and remember that whatever the challenges (and there are always, always challenges) we have so very much to be thankful for.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Maggie of "Maggie's Farm"

This is Maggie, our farm namesake.
It's HER fault (And our good fortune) that we are here at all.

It's a rainy, rainy day here. Not much is doing, so I guess I'll share the story of Maggie's Farm-- the relatively quick version anyway.

You see, before the three kids, Dan or anything of true importance :) there was Maggie, the intense little Border Collie puppy. Maggie, a bundle of nerves, full speed in whatever direction she was headed. She began "working" the very day I brought her home to my Boston apartment, fetching a tennis ball within minutes of arriving. Fortunately, I had a lot more time on my hands back then. I'd take her for an hour long romp in the park before work, bring her to work with me, take her for a two hour long walk after work.

And did she care to play the way a lab or golden retriever (or just about any self-respecting dog) might? Nooooooo! It was always work. Work, work, work for her. Playing was for sissies. Frolicking was for pups with less dignity and purpose. She only had eyes for tennis balls, sticks, anything that could be fetched. This was serious business! Also, she would circle around the other (foolishly playing) dogs in an effort to keep them in line.

"Type A" doesn't begin to cover it. This pup would need something serious to do! We took puppy kindergarten, then "Canine Good Citizen", beginning agility. And we might have gone on with all that. (I might also have gone CRAZY trying to meet Maggie's needs and still have some sort of life of my own.)

But then I met Dan and very quickly, we were "serious". I also got a teaching assistantship at the University of Colorado. So the three of us packed up and headed out west. Things went swimmingly. But again, there was Maggie, cooped up in our Longmont apartment while Dan wrote his dissertation and I went to class and taught class and graded papers and wrote poems. Our walls were soon covered in tennis ball shaped spots, evidence of Maggie's incredible persistence. (She'd stand beside us as we worked, nudging her tennis ball at our feet until we finally-- finally!-- gave in tossed the thing.) If we hid the tennis balls, she'd bring something else, ANYTHING else, a piece of couch fluff, a twig, a pencil. Walks around town or in the park didn't cut it. She needed to work!

So, out of consideration-- and desperation!-- we poured our minescule disposable income into sheepherding lessons. There really was no other choice. It was clearly what Maggie needed to DO and also we were sort of fascinated by the idea. Of course, Maggie took to sheep right away. And, the really surprising thing is that we did too. We loved those Saturday lessons. We pestered our teacher, Susan, with all sorts of questions... not about herding so much as haying and shepherding and starting out, and we eased a step down the road.

But then, we got pregnant and moved back to the east coast and into an upstairs apartment and put it all on hold. It remained on hold through three babies and a house (also in the suburbs) and busy jobs and the whole, usual, trajectory. During this time, Maggie made do with her backyard and tennis balls, lot of tennis balls.

Things were good, okay, just fine and dandy. But we didn't want to live that life. We longed for our kids to experience a different sort of childhood, a more "connected" childhood. This became clear when we went for a walk in the Blue Hills and scared up a deer. The kids were absolutely terrified of this alien creature. Would it hurt them? Why wasn't it inside some sort of enclosure like the animals at the zoo or petting farm?That may have been he last straw for me, that and the hours sitting in traffic and drinking Dunkin Donuts coffee out of a styrofoam cup. Also, there wasn't any sort of "community" in our community. We were a nuclear family, isolated in all sorts of ways and from all sorts of things-- family, community, nature, food. And we didn't want to continue that way.

We remembered the old dream we'd had in Colorado and also there was Maggie, still waiting patiently for the life for which she was born. We began to research the possibility of a move-- real estate, sheep breeds, chickens. We (Well, I) dove into all this stuff head first. This is the general way we operate around here-- head first and heedless. We try things out and suffer or revel in the consequences.

Long story short: Here we are on Maggie's Farm. We don't look back, can't imagine any other life. There were glitches along the way, MANY glitches. There are many glitches now. But the, that's the way of the world, ain't it?

And Maggie? She moves the sheep, sort of (They are big, tough, Icelandic sheep after all) and always and forever she keeps an eye on them. She circles around, helps with feeding and hoof trimming and every other kind of farm activity. With the same intensity she had as a pup.

So word of caution for all you prospective pet owners out there: Watch out! If you take on some cute little working dog, you might end up in the same boat, head over heels for a whole new lifestyle, one that looks good on your pet. (Guess this is about as polar opposite as you can get from the whole "dogs as fashion accessories" thing.)

Anyway, here she is, at ten years old, doing exactly what she loves best:

(And yes, "Maggie's Farm" is also a Dylan song. One we aspire to!)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

A fistful of (felting) needles

Well, this is my first attempt at needle felting. And I only stabbed myself twice in making it!

I thought I'd start with something simple, a pattern perhaps, but I kept taking the thing apart and reshaping and reshaping and reshaping and this was what I ended up with. I've heard sculptors "see" the form in the blank of a block of stone. And I'd like to think this strange little fishy showed up in a similar fashion, but really, it just seemed like a cool idea at the time and it, quite literally, stuck.

Now that we are shepherds, I am attempting to teach myself how to work with wool. I've now tried a little spinning, wet felting, needlefelting, dying and even knitting. (My first knitting attempt was unraveled by my lovely children after many frustrating hours, so knitting may be on hold for a little while.)
I like them all. But wet felting is a particular blast! Perfect for hot summer days at home with the kids. We set out buckets of warm soapy water and cold clear water, and the kids ball up bits of felt in pantyhose toes and before long are climbing into the buckets to sit among the bubbles and scrunch them into shape. After we're done, we use the water to mop the floor!
Here're some things we worked on over the summer.

Fun, fun, fun!

Sunday, November 11, 2007


You know that "Waiting for the World to Change" song, the one that seemed to be in every store and on every radio a few months ago, the one that managed to be both hopeful and incredibly, frustratingly, passive at the same time? Well, late fall is like that for me. I know it's coming: bared trees, icy slides down our hill to thump out the chunks in the animals' water buckets, icy slides down our treacherous Smead Hill Road, obsessively hovering over the thermometer and the woodstove. Winter is pretty darn "wintery" around here.

Now, I was raised in the warm, concrete flatlands of Florida, and so it is not entirely my fault that I have never-- never!-- made my peace with New England weather. Yes, the "change of seasons" is wonderous. I love the vibrancy and fullness of early fall and the wet, warm bounty of spring when one might dream-- actually dream-- of finally budding leaves. And summer, summer is lazy and "lamby" and green. But winter? I don't "get" winter. We can all cheer for hot cocoa (my kids certainly do.) and the cozy warmth of the woodstove. Sledding is great. (We have some wonderful hills for it) But all that would be so much better if it lasted no more than a week or two, maybe a month. By the dragging and bitter end of each winter I forget that I have known anything else, I am an expert at "closing off" and "layering" and "minimizing contact" and all those winter things that are no good for a soul.

They say the key is to get outside and make the most of it. So, once again, I'll be out there crunching around in my un-shepherdish, aluminum colored, moon boots and waiting for the world to change.

What about you? Any advice for a secretly (not SO secretly) wimpy ex-Floridian New England newbie shepherd?

Saturday, November 3, 2007

A Big Step in a Certain Direction

Today was the day.

Dan and I are not quite such newbie shepherds anymore for we have participated in the slaughter and butchering of one of our own sheep.

Duane (Our barber and an expert hunter) was able to make it out today, and he and Dan slaughtered Gus, our ram (see "Rampage!", Eating Something with a Face (and Name)!" and "Halloween Reprieve"). For all the bravado of my past few posts about this, it was harder than I expected, a big step in a certain direction, for sure. I even dreamt about Gus the night before, running off with a timed explosive implanted in his forehead. And I had to keep reminding myself all day that we had good reasons for dispatching the old boy: 1) After 3 years as the flock’s only ram, he had a nasty, dangerous temperament. We couldn’t keep him in his pen or even his high-security stall and we couldn’t put him with the younger rams. He could have seriously hurt them, or us, or even worse, one of the children (our three, neighbors, friends and cousins) who are constantly at play in and around the barn. 2) His massive horns had grown so thick that they were rubbing up against the sides of his face. Eventually, this would lead to pain or death or expensive surgery or routine, impossible to imagine, “sawings”. 3) Because of reasons 1 and 2, he was no longer the best option as a herdsire. Gus had a nice broad build, an exceptional lineage and a beautiful fleece. His lambs grow tremendously and we hope his son, Charlie Bucket, will carry these positive traits into the next generation, without the other two issues. So far, it looks possible. We’ll have to wait and see on the horns, but Charlie B. has a very mild temperament (so far).

Anyway, reason competed with emotion for me today. I stayed in the house, baking with the kids (Yes, actually baking!) while the “menfolk” did the dirty deed. Even so, my mind kept wandering back to the barn. Was it over? Would I hear the shot? Would Gus feel any pain? Etc. etc. Mostly it was the actual moment that bothered me. Having been present at deaths before, I know there is a profound and terribly irrevocable moment when an animal (or person) goes from alive to something quite suddenly “not”. I wasn’t sure I could stomach that moment.

When next I saw Gus, he was not Gus at all, just this lifeless carcass hanging from a tree. All I could come up with to say was “Wow. It’s just so… real”

“Yup,” Duane said “It don’t get much realer than this.”

We learned a lot today—about skinning and salting, meat grinding and bone sawing. It was a long day of work. One I can’t say I enjoyed but one that was necessary and undertaken as humanely as possible. And one that provided half a year's worth of healthy food for my family.

Tonight, we have over 50 pounds of ground meat in our fridge, all of it spiced up with garlic and other yummy things, and a beautiful hide drying in the garage. Conventional wisdom holds that Gus, being three years old and in the beginning stages of “rut” would be virtually inedible. (We had heard “Never eat a ram in any month that has an R in it” and also many mutton and ram horror stories.) But today, I can say “Poppycock!” with assurance. We are quite happy with our spiced, ground meat and what could be better in a shepherd’s pie than a sheep?

I’m still not sure how I feel about the whole thing—not great or triumphant or anything remotely like that-- but strangely, slightly satisfied. I know this very “real” process a bit more intimately now, and it doesn’t frighten me quite as much as it had.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Halloween Reprieve

Well, Gus, our nasty ram, is still with us, still thumping around in his high security stall. We had expected Duane (our barber) to come help us “dispatch” and “process” Gus. (Love those euphemisms!) But a tree fell on part of his house on Sunday. (Thankfully, no one was hurt. It took out the electricity and siding.) And so Gus’ future is on hold once again.

We are hoping to buy an old trailer so that next year, we can truck our rams and ram lambs (and…. perhaps, pigs?) out to our local slaughterhouse proper. But all that’s on hold as we are on a serious budget out here on Maggie’s Farm. Our trusty Toyota minivan has transported sheep, hay and everything else. This method has earned us a broken window, hours of vacuuming, hours of scrubbing, and many great stories, which I’ll have to add another time. A truck is not going to happen this year, so an affordable old stock/horse trailer is on the very top of our wish list.

On a whole other note: It was Halloween yesterday! We have to drive to town to trick or treat. But, as everybody else drives to town, too, town is really happening and fun! The folks of Shelburne Falls went all out with costumes and decorations and lots of scary fun treats! (Thank you, Shelburne Falls!)

Here are a few pictures of the kids in their costumes. Micah has gone from previous years’ princesses and mermaids to “the scariest thing she could think of” which was, as it turned out, the Grim Reaper. Anna, ever the soccerfan, was a soccer ball (though she quickly tired of the giant soccerball head we made out of a piƱata and wore just her painted face instead. And Joe was a knight with a sword (He was all about the sword, I tell ya!)

Happy November everybody!