Sunday, November 30, 2008


Somehow the Sunday after Thanksgiving is the Sunday-est Sunday of the year. We have hosted another big dinner, with our friends we have cleaned up in shifts for hours afterward. We have journeyed into the city to decorate gingerbread houses, visit, and shop. We've had turkey sandwiches and turkey burritos and microwaved stuffing and lamented once again that there are never enough left-over mashed potatoes.

And today, on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, the final remnants of the feast will soon be simmering on the stovetop as green chile chicken and turkey stew made from the stock we boiled up yesterday.

Most people I know cherish their Sundays, across a wide array of reasons. My closest friends, both city and island, consider Sundays their untouchable family day. With lives crammed full all week long and friends to see on Saturdays, Sundays are held aside to share a leisurely breakfast, read the paper, flop in front the televised sport of the season, go for walks, and in our case, plant something. We all recharge.

We don't have TV at our house so the sports thing is out (although I sometimes crave it and I don't even like sports. Figure that out.) But, recently, we've added a standing activity to our Sundays that never fails to make me smile. Dylan's best friend comes over for the afternoon.

Dylan is an only child and his friend is the oldest of three. He recently switched schools and now the two boys, who were really only beginning to explore their friendship, don't see each other much. In fact, as school began, they stopped running into each other altogether. I did run into his mom, though, and we discovered that both boys missed their friendship and were also both struggling in similar ways in their social circles. They could really use a buddy right now.

One Sunday turned into two and then it just seemed natural to do this most weekends. Sometimes we get a sleepover in there as well. It makes me smile to hear laughter and boisterous one-upsmanship ring throughout our small house all afternoon.

We even have a routine: Unless it's pouring rain, the first hour has to be spent outside. Then they come in and usually it's Harry Potter on the computer, although today we've got Risk in the living room. Food fits in there somewhere, then they head back outside to work a little more on their project - a "mine" in the back forest. AKA a giant hole that takes two 10 year old boys about an hour a weekend to dig.

Every age of a child's life brings new promises and challenges. I'm finding 5th grade tough, for me. It is the first time in my son's life I don't have ready solutions to what faces him. He is facing academic and social problems that he must solve. I can support him, but I cannot fix what's wrong.

So, I like to think that these Sunday afternoons are a little like Roosevelt's "chicken in every pot" Sundays. These three or four hours together - digging, laughing, eating, and playing - give our sons the emotional nourishment they need to face the slings and arrows of the classroom and playground for the week, knowing that they will be there for each other, like each other just for who they are, in a few days once more.

Sundays are, indeed, for recharging our bodies and souls, ourselves and our families. This holiday we spend thinking about what we are grateful for, and I have a long list. Today I am grateful for this friend and this friendship and the strength it brings my son.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Wedding Ring, Anniversary Ring

I am not a huge fan of jewelry. Certainly, I can admire it on its merits - I adore looking at creative and beautiful objects no matter what their function. But, for myself, jewelry is troublesome. My loving husband has, several times, gone to inordinate lengths, to find and purchase for me the most beautiful necklace. I have a few of these exquisite finds. And I just absolutely treasure them.

But, I can't deal with anything around my neck. So....a problem. I have a few symbolic earrings and I religiously wear a tangle of bracelets that bang around and are inscribed and remind me to care about the things I care about. But.

I do wear two very important pieces of jewelry every day. My wedding ring and my 10th anniversary ring. These rings live with me day in and day out and how they came to be in my life and what they mean to me maybe say something about who I am.

First, our wedding rings. We were both graduate students when Mark and I got married. We were both adamant that going into debt for a ring was crazy. So. Simple gold bands. The lovely guy at Shane Company actually had to go to the mat to get us a pretty box because our level of ring didn't generally warrant such fluff. Many years of marriage and neither one of us ever regretted the simple gold band. Both rings together cost less than $100.

Fast forward.

By the time our tenth anniversary approached, we'd been through the ringer. A lot of life had come at us very fast and things were not only tense, they were, suddenly, no longer guaranteed. We really didn't know if we'd make it to 11.

So, we threw a party. A hellacious party. Catered, my father flew in from Toronto (a first), and the distinguished man who'd driven down to Oregon to marry us agreed to a re-do. We lived in a beautiful water-view house on the west side of our island and everything was wonderful.

Except it was the just about the hardest time in our marriage. We were struggling with so much anger and betrayal and grief and hope and sorrow. We were trying to pick ourselves up from near tragedy, we were trying to part the clouds so we could see what the future might look like. And we didn't even know that three weeks later, Mark would be told he had prostate cancer.

But, I knew we needed a celebration. We needed a party that toasted all that was the good we created and did not shine a light on the struggle we were wrestling with.

We had that party - that amazing gathering where Dr. Hubert Locke arrived to give his thanks that this union he'd created 10 years prior thrived in beauty, that party where my father flew from Toronto to share in his daughter's joy, that gathering of friends, old and new, where fantastic piano music flowed joyfully throughout the house, where I wore my anniversary ring in public for the first time.

Sometimes I take my wedding ring off, to make dough or because it's a little tight now. I never, ever take my anniversary ring off except to clean it. Why?

Well. My anniversary ring is made of platinum. It has 10 stones, one for each year we were together before. Six sapphires (my favorite) and 4 near-perfect diamonds. I love this - that the diamonds and the sapphires total 10 - which was a complete accident. But, my anniversary ring is a touchstone to me in a way that my wedding ring can never be.

Two things.

First, when you are in your twenties and you get married, simple is easy. Not to say I was glib - I wasn't. But. That first, gold, ring represents a promise. A real, serious, promise. It's an important reminder of the beginning of the story, the road we started down together. The things we swore.


Here's what Iove about my platinum anniversary ring. It's really beat up. Yes, it has sapphires and diamonds, tiny as they are, but the band is beat to shit. I wear it every day and I love it so much because for me it represents a time in our marriage when things where NOT promising, when the future was NOT bright, but we hung in there. We didn't particularly like each other but we said, hey, we are in this for the long haul so let's delay these life decisions til later.

I'm glad we had the wisdom to do that. And, when I look at my anniversary ring, misshaped and warped, I love it all the more. Marriages are hard and their outcomes are uncertain. I like to look at my left hand and see the promise and then look at my right hand and see the reality. The beautiful, beaten-up, real-life reality.

Next summer will be Anniversary Number 17. I can't wait.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Counting Our Chickens

What the heck is it about chickens?? What is the deal with our love affair with chickens? 

Most city dwellers have no contact whatsoever with live hens, although in many cities, including Seattle, any single family dwelling is allowed to keep up to three hens (no roosters).  The ramifications of this common policy are huge - if most families kept three laying hens, protein would be guaranteed most days.  With three layers and a small vegetable patch, even folks plunked down on 4000 sf (like we were before moving here) could be assured greens and protein during any food crisis and could enjoy fresh eggs and salad during everyday life as well.

But, I digress. Though most small-scale farmers begin keeping hens for the pay-as-you-go breakfast and then farm-supporting workers they are, I don't know a one that hasn't simply fallen in love with their chickens on their merits.  It's tough not to be effusive about hens - even Whole Foods CEO John Mackey has waxed poetic over the effect of keeping hens.  

I order our chicks from McMurray Hatchery in Iowa.  I feel a little weird about these 1-day old fluffballs the post office calls me at 6AM to collect - factory produced, shipped in a box, 1 or more mortalities written into the business plan.  Our hope is to utilize our one broody (ie, wants to sit on baby eggs) hen and grow our own chicks, but that's more complex than it sounds.

But.  But, it is amazing how such a factory environment - these chicks are literally put in a box when they are 24 hours old - can produce such fascinating and diverse personalities.    We have 24 new hens (we hope....stay tuned for another accidental rooster post...) and they are 24 kinds of beautiful, funny, graceful, clumsy, friendly, aggressive, and hilarious as you could possibly imagine.

We order the "rainbow layer mix," which includes hens that lay white, beige, tan, brown, and - the most coveted - beautiful green eggs.  And this translates into a flock that delivers diversity in every way you can imagine.  Color, size, feathers, temperment, voice (yes, voice), and curiosity. The one thing they share is an intense interest in what I might, possibly, be bringing them.  I often look like the Pied Piper as I approach the chicken yard and their curiosity takes over.  I love me my Jessie, but for pure hilarity and fun, nothing competes with the TV better than chickens.

Chickens are not nearly as simple and dumb as our folklore would have us believe.  These gals have instinct we could only dream of, scratching the dirt for the good stuff when they're barely out of the box.  They form alliances, they pay attention, heaven help you if you feed them from anywhere you'd rather not have them loiter.  And they sure know how to come home every evening from hither and yon and get comfy in their nice warm house while they trust in their keeper to shut the door and ensure their safety.

Hens flitter and squawk and change course on a dime and attack leftovers with a seriousness dogs and cats might envy.  "Grab and Go" is the watchword of the hen yard.  They are entertaining and joyful partners in any farm experiment or enterprise.  I can't recommend them enough.  The great news is, if you can score a dog crate (say, on Freecycle), if you've got a fenced yard, you are good to go with 2 or 3 hens.  If your gals are out and about during the day, they really need almost nothing but security at night.  Don't overthink it.  Hens bring joy and purpose into your life. 

 Have fun-

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Giving Thanks for 20 Years

Here in the U.S., Thanksgiving is just around the corner. For me, it starts being "just around the corner" come November 1 because it's my very favorite holiday. I think other countries and cultures have a broad palette of celebrations, but here ours are mostly based either in religion or patriotism, save one: Thanksgiving. And 2008 marks the 20th year I've hosted dinner on this day.

I really like the idea of a day set aside for being grateful. A day to remember where we came from, think about where we'd like to go. A day to reflect on our good fortunes and send thoughts of thanks and goodwill to both those who have helped us and to those who need help.

Officially, Thanksgiving is the day we Americans remember that without the kindness and generosity of the First Americans, the Native Americans, our little experiment with the New World would have been over not much after it was begun. Of course, how the puritans, explorers, and opportunists would go forward and repay that generosity is another story. On Thanksgiving, we bow our heads in gratitude to those who shared their food and their seeds so that the settlers might survive.

Mythology aside, the relationships between those who were already here and those who came later were never so cut-and-dried as to have been either steadfast allies or sworn enemies. Like most of history, the truth was more complex, with individual and community alliances and disputes ebbing and flowing across the full spectrum of entanglements. There were trade agreements and raids, there was good faith and bad. For an excellent, fresh perspective on this era, I recommend Russell Shorto's Island at the Center of the World.

But that is history. Today we think of Thanksgiving in a few ways. The only two-day holiday on our calendar. Tortuous air travel. Insufferable relatives. A break from college before exams. The acceptable, although by no means common, moment to begin hearing Christmas music. Seeing our children. Seeing our parents. Shopping. And, obviously, food.

It's ironic that the way we choose to celebrate salvation from starvation is gluttony. Seems a little disrespectful somehow, doesn't it? Nonetheless, for a food-focused gal like me, That Thursday in November is nirvana. Strangely, however, each year Thanksgiving becomes less and less about the food I serve and more and more about the people at the table.

That table's gotten smaller over the years. The orphans and lost souls of our twenties and early thirties have gone on to find partners, have children, build lives and traditions of their own. But, around my table are many of the people who are truly vital to me. My wonderful husband and breathtaking son. My adventurous mom. My walking and kevetching buddy - my GGF (good girlfriend) as she calls us, and her family.

And, the woman I've shared that table with for 20 years. I invited Elise down to my mom's house in 1988 after she had just moved to Albuquerque and had yet to make many friends. We somehow managed a respectable feast on 1 stovetop burner and a sort of working oven. It was a long, fun day. We've never missed a Thanksgiving dinner together since, and we've got enough Turkey Day Adventure stories to fill a whole other blog.

When we started this tradition, we didn't know it would become a tradition. But year after year, we propped each other up through some pretty tough times, including two interstate moves. Thanksgiving became the touchstone of a shared life always in motion, always moving forward. We were two 20-somethings in New Mexico who met slopping prime rib in a "family style" restaurant. Then, college, moving, my marriage, graduate school, moving, her marriage, and beautiful sons for us both. Just like that, we're two 40-somethings in Washington.

We lead very different lives now, she and I. She and her husband are staunch city dwellers and have the worst ferry karma of anyone I know, making almost every visit to our island farm a comedy of errors. They both work full time at demanding professional jobs and are well-accomplished. They have lots of friends and lots of engagements.

Mark and I live in the country and between the two of us have maybe one foot on the career ladder. We break out in hives if we have to stay in the city more than a few hours. We don't get out much.

But, Elise's life and mine are as entwined as sisters'. We share a history and a journey and, consequently, a core. We know each other inside and out (and still love each other!) and know there's strength out there if we make a mistake or hit hard times. She's got my back; I've got hers.

We all know Thanksgiving is the time to pause and reflect on what we are grateful for. A toast to 20 years of friendship and the rich, satisfying full life I've been fortunate to build with the wind of love, hers and others', at my back.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Darkness Falls...Fall Darkness

November in the Pacific Northwest means, mostly, darkness. Sometime about now, the middle of the second-to-last month on the calendar, we find ourselves peering unbelieving at the clock several times a day.

8AM? Really?

How can it be only 5PM when I'm putting the hens away, flashlight in hand?

Wow, I'm exhausted - think I'll hit the 7:30.

The sun sinks so low that for many households, it never gets above the trees, creating the warped perception of dawn into dusk with no day inbetween.

Every Autumn, it's the same. We are never prepared for the darkness, no matter how prepared we think we are. It always sneaks up on us. Somehow we feel it happens overnight, although in our brains we know that can't be. On our island, we get the added benefit of a brief season of ephemeral fog, doing even more to usher in the winter to come.

Fog is very micro-climate specific and as such behaves differently around the island. On SSF, the fog usually creeps softly in during the wee hours and lays waiting for us as we awake, late, in the morning. Restless, I often wake between 2am and 4am and can't stop myself from staring out across the field that stretches south from the house. The mist seems to glow and it seems dawn is near, when in fact it's still hours away. Soon the rains will set in and these luminescent nights will be gone, so I don't mind the lost sleep.

In the Pacific Northwest, we battle darkness on two fronts. First, our fall and winter days are short because we're so far north. Second, our infamous rain and cloudcover turns even our daytime hours dismal from Nov-Feb. Science has begun taking a more critical look at this combination, uncovering ever more evidence that so many months under the cloak of darkness may well contribute to our astronomically-high rates of multiple sclerosis and even some cancers. Vitamin D deficiency, high suicide rates, skyrocketing depression, a disturbing percentage of the nation's high-profile serial killers...all part of the price we pay for a "mild" climate and excessive natural beauty.

On our island, we are even darker. When we moved here from nearby Seattle, I could not believe how claustrophobic and disorienting the nights were. Fine, if you stayed close to home, but truly unnerving if you ventured out onto our country roads. Between mist, rain, suicidal deer and an almost unbelievable veil of darkness, I found myself crawling along the highway at ridiculous speeds.

Which makes today all the more special. We've had nice weather, over a weekend no less, but today was spectacular - and we don't normally get "spectacular" half-way through November. It was throw-open-the-doors warm (and I did) and every blade of grass just glistened. I wish I could bottle the endorphins that a day like today produces and drink them in January.

But, in a very real way, the dark of now makes the light of July that much more special. And, luckily, with every year on this island, I find more ways to bring light into winter's darkness and to appreciate what the lack of light brings. More family time inside, Dylan at the piano, Mom washing up (or at the computer, like now). A sense of "circling the wagons" almost, settling in and settling down against the season to come. On Vashon, folks take this time to turn inward - it's typical that you don't see your friends from the Halloween street party until after Presidents Day. To be honest, that took some getting used to, but I think I understand now. To everything there is a season.

Welcome winter, come what may.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

You say you want a revolution...

Somehow I'd missed Michael Pollan's recent open letter to the incoming president in the NYT magazine last month. It's a commitment, but worth the read. You can get to it by clicking on the michaelpollen link under "What I'm reading."

Pollan has probably done more to open our eyes to the true costs of industrial agriculture than any other single person. Both The Omnivore's Dilemma and its sequel In Defense of Food are totally readable yet in-depth examinations of the way we eat and the way what we eat came to be what we eat. The stunning evolutionary success of simple maize, now dominating acreage the world over; the ludicrous ratio of fossil fuel expenditure to calories produced (10:1); the revelation that contemporary fertilizers were originally a by-product of early 20C chemical warfare. Pollan tells the story of our love affair with cheap food in a unique and fascinating way.

Which is why I'm thrilled he's re-outlined how food policies contribute to both our national (in)security - witness recent scares around imported food - and our over-dependence on imported oil. The main point of his open letter, that the era of cheap food is almost certainly drawing to a close, has yet to really hit most of us I think.

Cheap food has only been cheap because it has been heavily subsidized. That subsidization was intentional policy - Americans spend a smaller percentage of their income on food than any other industrialized nation. But the policy has rendered many unintended consequences and the context in which cheap food was mandated has changed. Cheap food is no longer the answer, because the questions have changed.

But, Pollan says all this better than I ever could. The take home message I hope to convey is that those milk prices and bread prices (I currently pay up to $8 for a loaf of organic bread) probably won't be retreating anytime soon, as everyone hopes. Before too long, eating seasonally and locally could very likely move from the quaint and neighborly category to the "duh" column. The good news is that it's healthier, more fun, and kind of inspiring.

Really getting to know your local farmers might very well inspire you to dig up a little backyard and plant some onions and salad greens, buy some pots for your front porch and put in your favorite vegetables - heck, my son even saved a seed from a tomato and grew it on our windowsill. He was so proud of himself, he's got a little horticulture center of saved seed plants thriving behind our western glass door. Recently, I found myself really exasperated with our wonderful full-service supermarket for continually undercutting other island businesses, including our farmers. My small rebellion has been to shop any ingredients I can at farm stands before I get to the store. If my farmer friends are selling it, I buy it there first. Thriftway can survive without my leek and garlic funds, but my buddies down the street might not.

There's something powerful about feeding ourselves, whether "ourselves" is us, our family, or our neighborhood. There's nothing more basic than food. I hope our new president helps change the economics of how food is produced and removes many of the barriers that make small-scale farming so hard. But, the power of true food revolution really does lie within each one of us.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Good-bye to # 3

Well, this blog is fast becoming the place to check on all that is hard and awful about trying to be a sustainable farm.

This afternoon we put down our third ram lamb. Herbie. If you've read early posts, you'll calculate that we have now had to bury both our orphan lambs. These are the boys we scooped up when their mother rejected them in March, the babies we housed in a Pack-n-Play for nearly 3 months, the animals I drove a mile down the road to milk a goat for every single day for almost half their lives.

So, drawing a knife across their jugular is difficult. And Mark had to do it tonight. Again. Herbie was fine, like the others, until all of a sudden yesterday he wanted to stay put while we moved the sheep up to the new pasture. Not good. And he baa'd very strangely. I got a sick feeling and brought him out to munch some grass. I didn't feel good.

But, Herbie obviously felt worse. I checked on him this morning, but honestly, had already moved him to the "gone" column b/c this scene was now just too familiar. Still, this was Herbie - the ram lamb we'd broken "berry" naming tradition with b/c we'd originally decided to whether him and make him a pet.

We did some chores, went to town, came home and began our long-overdue quarterly sheep maintenance (a whole 3 months late b/c of schedule conflicts with our city sheep-wrangling friends and our own laziness or fear). We got 3 sheep, including the odiferous ram, done. I went down to check on Herbie and he didn't look good. I carried him out to pasture, molasses water and grain nearby and...nothing. So, I sat down and started to cry. Again, we've gone through this before, saddened at the waste and the failure, and the uncertainty. But, then he started having seizures and I lost it. I knew we couldn't leave him through the night, having seizures in an empty shed, only to have us inevitably kill him tomorrow.

Dylan was worried at my sobs and asked what was up. I asked him to get his dad, unfortunately fresh from the shower, and Mark took over from there. I said my good-byes and that was that, from my point of view. Mark can start his own blog if he wants to detail how mercy killings don't always go according to plan.

But, Blackberry has given birth to 5 lambs. Two ewes who are great and three rams who are dead. I'm unfortunately detecting a pattern here and it will certainly have to affect our future plans. We just can't do this. We can't put our emotional and temporal energy into animals we bury six months later. On occasion, of course, but not AS a matter of course.

We'll figure this all out I guess.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Why Stop Sign Farm?

When people come to Stop Sign Farm, they usually assume we coined the funny name because we painted our farmhouse red.  But, unbelievably, I actually didn't put it together that our house was the color of a stop sign until we'd been SSF for over a year!

No, our name comes from how we built the first true farm element on the property, our sheep pasture.  After building our house and mom's cottage, we were flat out of funds - witness the sea of mud that was our front yard for the first 6 months in yesterday's post.  When we decided to bring sheep into the picture, we had to figure out a way to do it on the cheap.  Turns out, a friend had found a public sector source nearby for all those stop sign and road sign posts that get knocked down or broken in accidents.  These are great 4X4 cedar posts and, to keep them out of the landfill, the public agency sells them on a first-come basis for almost nothing.

Well, almost nothing was almost exactly the price we were looking for.  Our sheep pasture is about an acre and built almost entirely from used stop sign posts and second-hand woven wire mesh bought off friends and neighbors.  All told, we saved over $3000 on just that project alone.  Since then, we've joined the local Freecycle listserve here and have scored barn doors, windows, bricks, and a host of other materials and items that are the building blocks of SSF.

And saving money has allowed us to build this farm more quickly than we could have otherwise.  But, it's more than that.  More broadly, the name Stop Sign Farm references an underlying principle that guides what we do here.  Reusing durable goods and resources helps save everyone money, helps keep superfluous items from crowding our landfills, and, maybe most importantly, introduces people to their local economy again.  

Our local economy is not just about what we buy; it's about the people we buy from.  Or sell to.  Or share with.  I can't count how many fascinating conversations I've had in the past two years leaning over a doghouse I'm picking up or helping load some boxes I don't need for someone or over email as we finetune our arrangement.  My son got a laptop to help him in the classroom.  My chickens got their first and second coops.  And in the process, I heard stories and admired handiwork; I shared my story and others felt good about where that used stuff was heading.  Almost invariably, my Freecycle interactions end with one of us laughing and saying, "I LOVE Freecycle!"

There's growing discussion out there about the power of shopping your local farmers market - and it's a lynchpin conversation.  But, your localvore experience doesn't have to end with the food you buy.  Imagine if every one of your consumer transactions connected you to a neighbor.   We're so far away from that, it's tough to even wrap our brains around.  But, talk about consumer power - wow.  

There's a good chance there's a Freecycle group near you. Click on the URL under "What I'm reading" to find one and have fun!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Progress Happens

Just a quick post to emphasize that building anything from scratch is tough and often demoralizing.  It's easy to forget where you came from and tough to recall how far you've traveled.  A couple of photos that help remind me that we've only been here 3 years and it's only been about 2 and change since we began "working the land."  Nothing comes overnight - at least, not without a big bag of cash.

If I can get these photos to load, the first is of our "yard" right after we moved in.  Everything within 100 feet of the houses was a giant mudpit.  We were scavenging rocks to build a rockwall; we'd paid some island con artists a ridiculous amount of money for some dirt with which to build this little front yard, and it all felt pretty overwhelming.  The second photo depicts the front yard this past summer, just over 2 years later.  

So, yeah, progress happens.  Keep the faith.  Those baby plants and dwarf-like trees do indeed grow - faster than you might anticipate.  Just get good advice and make maps.  

The Nerve Center of SSF

Every successful operation has its vital core and this here is ours. Meet Jessie, the worst shepherding shepherd on the planet. When we move our sheep, we actually stop first to ascertain that he is, indeed, in the house so will not lay ruin to our perfect plans. He has managed to chase sheep nearly all the way to the road, get stepped on, separate babies from mamas, and have a couple nasty surprise encounters with our very annoyed ram.

No, a lean, mean sheep-herding machine he is not. In fact, he's none of those things. He's just turned 9 years old, is about 20 pounds overweight, and we're pretty sure he's about 75% blind in both eyes. Unfortunately, his hearing is excellent. Extreme near-sightedness coupled with keen auditory capabilities in a breed of dog trained to protect translates roughly into a lot of scared-poopless visitors. So, people who don't know him might beg to differ with the "mean" part.

The phrase "bark is worse than his bite" was coined for our Jessie. He truly is harmless unless directly threatened, but wow can he put on a show. He nearly caused the expiration of an elderly neighbor this past summer who had the poor timing to stroll softly up our long driveway one afternoon when Jessie was in an unusually deep nap. In her mid-to-late 70s, she'd come to inquire after our salad greens when she'd noticed our cooler and sign from earlier in the day had been put away.

Long story short, she surprised Jessie, who in turn really, really surprised her. I burst out of the house in pajamas to coach her on staying calm too late to stop her from backing up into the electric sheep fence. Which caused even more screaming, which confused and aggravated Jessie, which....well, you get the picture.

A thousand apologies, a glass of water, and a big bag of salad greens on the house and we parted (and remain) friends, but whew! I've since nailed a sign advertising the presence of our Australian Shepherd at the base of the driveway and try to keep an even closer eye than before for visitors, but every now and then Jessie gets the chance to prove his protective mettle.

So, one might be forgiven for asking just why we keep this blue-eyed trouble-maker around. The answer is, overactive bark glands and underactive shepherding instincts aside, he's one great farm dog. While other farms on the island lost most or all of their laying flocks, we hung on to each and every beautiful hen. He doesn't tolerate raccoons and he insists on harmony across the land. The cats are not allowed to torment the hens or even each other (that last being an extremely tall order). He watches over me like a hawk, and while grumpy about the attention-sharing piece, extends his scope of responsibility to cover Dylan as well.

He's also part of the family - the only one with any good breeding among us.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Putting them down

It's been just about a month since we had to put one of our lambs down.  It probably sounds twisted to grieve over losing an animal destined for the dinner table, but it's possible and, I would submit, common.

First, there is the waste.  In a small (ok, tiny) operation like ours, every animal that doesn't meet its intended destiny, be it harvest or breeding, makes the rest of the livestock that much more expensive.  If you've forked out money for vet visits in the bargain, it's doubly painful.

But, there's more to it than the bottom line.  Small-scale ranchers and farmers have a real relationship with their animals.  And, it's the case more often than not that the cause of death never really reveals itself.  So, a keen sense of failure and failed responsibility as swell as frustration falls over every situation that ends in wasted death.

It was December of last year when we put our first lamb down.  A mysterious illness, three weeks of coaxing for recovery, and ultimately Strawberry died alone in a stall in the middle of the night, a mere shadow of the healthy ram lamb he'd been in November.  His twin was fine - still is today.  

Three months later his mama Blackberry gave birth to another set of twins.  She walked away from both of them and refused to be reunited (but that's another post).  And darned if the same mysterious demise did not afflict this second two-tone ram lamb.  Once he "went down" into the straw, though,I knew better than to expect him to get back up.  We tried, of course, but this time we didn't draw it out for weeks, we didn't get up in the middle of the night to administer vitamins and medications.  We didn't let him die alone in the dead of night.

We cleaned him up and made the judgement that his skeletal legs, withered and weak, were clearly never going to support him again.  We brought him out into the afternoon sun, laid him down in an especially succulent patch of grass and scratched his ears while he enjoyed his last meal.  Life is not the movies, so Mark walked off with a shovel and dug a grave while I did my best not to cry too ridiculously, talking to little DaveBarry and stroking his cheek while he munched.  

And then he was dead.  Quickly, in the sunshine, happy.  Over.  In the morning, there were 12 and now just 11.  But, no suffering, no death watch.  

You never want to lose any of them until they've led a good life and are ready to meet their destiny.  But, promising them a good death means delivering on that commitment when it's their time, not yours. 

Running a small farm has aged me, I'll be honest.  I think because it demands that I be a true grown up.  Eating food that is completely separate from your day to day activities in some real way is to be infantile - to be innocent and unaware and shielded from what is required to produce that food.  I'm older, but I'm wiser too, and grateful for that loss of innocence.  

Friday, November 7, 2008

Good-bye to the past, hello to the future

It is three days after Barack Obama's historic presidential victory.  It's hard to imagine that I can pen anything moving or even original after all the poignant and sob-inducing essays published the world over these past 72 hours.  Still, we can only speak from our own experience.

I have been a small and peripheral part of the Obama campaign.  Moved by him from the beginning, I split my allegiance between Edwards and Obama until Edwards dropped out.  Hillary's assumptive posturing and her predictable scripted path was more than I could stomach, even given her impressive accomplishments and her dogged perseverance in pursuit of her goal.  

I have always been a sidelines political supporter, but the Bush years insisted I get off my butt.  My son was just 18 months old when George W. Bush was elected.  This president's attack on the future has always felt like a direct attack on my family and my son.

So, I joined the Obama nation.  I put stickers on my car, I held a fundraiser at my house, feeding strangers, making a speech, and raising $500.  Not big bucks, but more than I could afford on my own.  I dragged my political soulmate Shelley with me to canvass a disenfranchised neighborhood in Seattle.  I bought buttons and gave them out, wore caps, bought "got hope" t-shirts for my son (who proudly and repeatedly wore them...even to school).  

But, mostly, I talked.  And talked.  And talked.  I talked to anyone who would listen.  I wore my buttons everywhere and found they were reliable conversation starters.  I would forget I had one on (b/c I always did) and was often taken by surprise on the street, in Costco, at the gas station, in the aisles of Thriftway.

It's no cliche:  people really are hungry, starving, for change.  They are weary of this democracy slipping down and away from them, disappearing for their children.  They're sick of hearing about the escapades of the rich and infamous when every brick in the foundation of their own lives is crumbling.  And three days ago, they came out in droves, unprecedented droves, and voted good-bye to the past and thank god you're here to the future.

We are fired up.  We are ready. to. go.

But today, I am actually reflecting on someone who belongs to the past and I sometimes forget to appreciate how unafraid she is of the future:  my mom.  My mom is 85 and change and she couldn't wait to vote for Obama.  She loves everything about him.  She loves his eloquence and his stature.  She loves his compassion.  She loves his wife and his little girls.  She loves his courage.  She loves his vision.  And, yes, she loves his color.

I'd forgotten or maybe not even really understood how truly amazing this was, and probably would not have had it brought home to me but for a timely (or untimely) trip my mom took to visit two of her three surviving siblings.  This was a very rare event.  My mom was raised in West Virginia, with all the bigotry and ignorance you might envision, but essentially ran screaming from the bosom of her family the first chance she got.  She married AND joined the marine corps to serve in WWII, making doubly-sure she'd not be mired in Appalachia a minute longer than absolutely necessary.

Of course, I knew all this, and I knew, although cannot truthfully say know, my relatives.  I have never been close to them, obviously given Mom's emotional and geographic distance.  But I completely failed to appreciate how little people can grow and learn over even a long and well-educated lifetime.  Mom's week of immersion with her sisters, just weeks before the presidential election, turned into a living nightmare for her and a illuminating lesson in human nature for me.

The TV on constantly, her sisters and their daughters, my cousins, hurled insults and epithets at the screen the likes of which I wouldn't dare to print here lest my words be lifted out of context.  Horrible, awful, violent words to describe this decent man who would become our next president.  Horrible awful violent suggestions of what should "be done."  Mom ended up reading in the bedroom for most of the visit.

Such fear.  Such rage.  Such pure cowardice.  Who are these people, my people, who so vehemently insist that all that is is theirs for the taking?  These petty, little minds who so fear the equality of others?  How can life be so fragile that the very sharing of it with those who are different would render it broken? 

Who thinks like this???

Well, not my mom.  Though she came from this clan, was raised in this hate-filled home, and taught the supremacy of her kind, she said yes instead of no.  She pulled away, pulled up, and wrote her own destiny - a destiny that eventually included world travel, many marriages, even more careers, and a long list of friends who were colorful in every way imaginable.  She all but turned her back on her family, ultimately sequestering her only daughter apart as well, and chose a path it seems her brothers and sisters could not even contemplate.

The racists and bigots of Appalachia will soon be gone.  They are thankfully a small and dwindling breed, a people who have already seen their best days because they cannot envision a future that is different from their past.  So, we don't really have to worry about them.  Instead, a moment to celebrate a woman who though most of her life is in the past, it has always been about the future. 

Thanks, mom, for taking me there.