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Melting

Melting

There are days that just beckon you outside no matter what you are doing.  The warm breezes, the shining blue sky, the melting snow….

Monday was one of those days.  Plans for table work and house chores went out the window as I gathered up my camera, dog and child and headed outside into the warm spring day.  The sun was beaming, the snow was beginning to recede and I have learned over many, many years that these days are a gift.  A gift you need to make the most of because, like a really sucky birthday party that does not go your way, that gift will be snatching from your fingers and hidden out of sight for an indeterminate period of time with no warning whatsoever.  Life can be harsh that way.

I searched everywhere for signs of spring, the forming buds on the ends of branches, the moss covered rock that was simply waiting for the warm touch of sunshine to bring it to life again.  The fungi clinging to a log that somehow make it through the bitter cold each year seemingly untouched.  I wish I could say the same.  But where I mostly found spring was inside.  Neirin went dashing off, exploring hedgerows he ‘had never seen before’.  He was fascinated by a ‘massive’ tree that seemed to have sprung out of nowhere, begging to be climbed.  He dashed in and out of bushes and trees, exclaiming to me how lovely it all was, how warm it was outside, how he really didn’t need his coat at all.

I followed him on his journey, weaving around him and noticing the receding snow, the skeletal plants standing in contrast against the remaining monochrome background.  I pushed my feet into the mushy white stuff, feeling it give way to the warmth of the sun and the turn of the season.  Each moment seemed somehow significant, bright and very lovely.

 

Every shimmering touch of green feels like a wondrous discovery.  Even the melancholy remaining feathers of a long lost duck felt part of a new beginning; the day held us in the palm of its hand and gave us the warmth we needed to get through another bout of wintery grey.  But the best bit about it?

Spring. Ish.

Spring. Ish.

Theoretically it is spring, as in the first day of.  I know this because the calendar says so.  Begrudgingly I will also concede that yes, the days are in fact longer than they used to be not so very long ago. But.

It’s really, really cold.  And when I say cold, I am really not messing around.  I’m talking overnight temps of -21C, which in countries other than Canada is cause for nationwide shut downs and a wailing and gnashing of teeth only previously seen when the Cadbury’s Cream Egg was reduced in size.  Seriously though, I’m still not over that.  But back to the weather.

Snow is still very much in evidence here, though in order to mix things up and give us a little variety we also have patches of ice.  The ground that made a short visit to Visibility Town only a couple of weeks ago, is once more encased in a frosty tomb and shows none of the promise of life, greenery and warm month frolics that my heart so longs for.  Le sigh.

Instead we continue on with our winter routine, making sure that animals have unfrozen water, keeping bedding fresh and cosy for long sleepy days snuggled up while the wind whistles outside.  Damn how I envy our pigs.  We cast our eyes longingly towards water troughs that will run on unfettered hoses in the summer months, freeing us from the labour of shifting buckets of water from one place to another.  We turn our faces away from the biting wind and imagine ourselves in the future, pausing under a shady oasis while warm breezes wash over our over heated brows.

There are indications of  spring for sure, the sound of birdsong is more present than it has been, the light floods our house warming us during the daylight hours and leaving behind residual warmth for many hours afterwards.  The cats are actually marginally willing to go outside, rather than spending their waking hours finding hiding spots that will defeat our desire to not have them wee on the floor in the night.  In this way spring is beginning her unfurling, tickling our senses with the possibility of mushy ground and green shoots.

But oh I how crave a quicker return.  I was so in love with the above zero temperatures we had a few weeks ago, I stood out on the deck and felt the breeze wash over me as I dared to go outside with only two layers of clothing on and neither of them was made of down.  Up here in the frozen north it really does stay colder for longer, and while I’m able to welcome the dark nights of winter after a long season of busyness, I’ve now reached the pointed of cabin fever and can’t wait to be out on the land again.

And I suppose that’s the point of it all really, that’s what keeps us sane on this cycle of warmth and cold.  When you make the most of each season, when you wring out of it as much as you possibly can, the passing of it seems less painful.  After a busy summer and fall of gardening, working outside and making the absolute most of every hour, the prospect of quiet hibernation becomes very welcome.  Now, though, we are ready for the next phase.  I want to feel my fingers go numb in the black earth that is barely ready to receive seeds.  I want to bring in sheets off the line that are still cold with spring wind and crisp from riding the turbulent breezes.  My fingers itch to caress the first buds on the trees and touch the unfurling leaves with soft tips that may yet have to withstand snow and ice.

So to all those who, like me, are feeling the burning desire for spring to get underway, I promise it will come.  Not as quickly as we wish and not as easily as we would like but the wheel is turning once again.  It’s our job to hold on tight and hope to not get squished.

Nourish

Nourish

It seems almost impossible, at this time of year, to resist being caught up in the frenzy of diet and health ‘advice’ that is in abundance.  We are meant to begin the calendar year with a sense of purpose, a redefining of ourselves and all at the time of the year when we most want to pull the duvet over our heads and sleep for the next quarter year or so.

Doesn’t sound fun.

Like everyone else I struggle to balance out all of the contradictory advice about food and health that exists in the world.  There are so many variations of what is ‘healthy’ now that it really boggles the mind.  Much as I love new information, I find myself in overload when I try to tackle the myriad possibilities of what I ‘should’ be putting on my plate.  Frankly I’m tired of it all.  I’m tired of feeling that only some slimmer, younger, more vibrant version of me is acceptable to the world.  That I must be less in order to be more.  I’m tired of fighting an endless fight that I’m never going to win.  And on top of all that I’m actually just tired.  It’s been winter for a long time and, well,  ugh.

So I have a new watchword that I’m trying to use to steer my choices over the coming months and it is the title of this post.  Nourish.  It’s a simple yet complex notion that I can decide for myself what works for me based on how I feel.  I can decide to eat, or not eat, foods based on a few questions I ask myself.

Does this food make me feel good?

How do I feel 10-20 mins after eating?

Does it feel nourishing to me right now?

Simple enough really and of course, very personal.  What is nourishing will mean different things at different times, even on the same day.  Does it feel nourishing to eat delicious meats I raised on my own farm?  Yes!  Go right ahead.  Does it feel nourishing to enjoy a delicious tea with even more delicious company, snacking on cookies or special occasion treats?  Most certainly!  Enjoy to the fullest.   Does it feel nourishing to sneak an entire handbag of peanut M&M’s into the cinema when you have a once a year opportunity to be out without the children and stay up crazy late watching bizarre Sci-Fi movies on a sold fuel of lemon flavoured water and sugar?  Hell yes!

I’m a grown up person with many pairs of big girl pants, therefore I know that if I eat a handbag full of M&M’s every day I will probably be violently ill or die of malnutrition.  But as the old saying goes, All things in moderation, including moderation.  It can feel good to cut loose, just as it can feel good to acknowledge when something isn’t working for you and make a change.  It is nourishing to care enough about your own wellbeing to craft foods that make you feel strong and healthy; it’s also kind to recognise your own humanity and just do your best as much as you can.

In a world where even the humble potato has been demonised, where food is ‘clean’ or ‘detoxifying’ (as opposed to dirty, naughty and just plain filthy one presumes) it is easy to get sidetracked and confused.  It is easy to miss signals your own body is sending, telling you what works for you, right now.  What works in the winter, is different to what works in the summer.  In the summer I am thrilled to eat garden raised salad with every meal, in the winter I want potatoes with some potatoes on top, don’t hold the potatoes.  Our needs change with different phases of our lives and, I think, tuning into that is more important that what the internet says is good this year.

So when I feel the panic that tells me that a perfectly healthy food that I’m really craving is bad, I ask myself the question, does this feel nourishing to me right now?  The reason why the answer is yes might be layered, but if it is yes then that’s good by me.  I’m looking for my food to make me feel full, to give me energy, to encourage strength and movement in my body.  I need meals that will allow me to garden, to pig wrestle and to do more laundry than there are clothes in our house.  I also need for it to not include ingredients that have to be sourced by climbing up a Himalayan mountain, barefoot in December or requires me to spiralize fairy wings into a smoothie made from Kale and wishes.  That just doesn’t work for me.

I’m never going to be a teeny person, I’m never going to be small or unnoticeable.  I don’t think I want to be.  What I want is to feel energetic, full of life and enthusiasm.  I want to laugh, move, eat, create and generally enjoy life.  And sometimes, I just want to eat cake, damnit.

Predator and Prey

Predator and Prey

Around here we are used to being the ones who decide which critters live, which breed, which die and when.  We work our hardest to control their environment to keep them safe, happy and content.  But as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall once said, Sometimes you don’t get to play God.  Sometimes God does.  

While the abundance of our farming life is the thing we try to keep most in mind, it is the losses that we feel most keenly.  Over the years we have experienced inevitable and unexpected losses from illness, from accidents and, of course, from predators.  We consciously try to keep our farm as safe for our animals as possible, using electric fences, having a farm guard dog, being vigilant about lock ups and keeping food away from critters that might decide it’s home.  But no matter how hard we work, some other creature is working hard for their survival.

Racoons will break in to coops, skunks will steal eggs in broad daylight and a weasel can get in to the tiniest crack and wreak havoc when they do (last year we lost our entire flock of laying hens to a weasel).  Of course there are also coyotes and wolves that will scoff up a chicken that has decided they would rather roost in an open field, thank you very much, and all that is left for the farmer to find is feathers.

Over the summer some of our breeding ducks disappeared, it took us a while to notice as the ducks live pretty wild on the farm and often taken themselves off to a hidden corner to build a nest or hatch a brood.  Eventually we realised they weren’t coming back but we saw no signs as to where they might have gone.  More recently we noticed the ducks we reducing in number and no matter how much we tried to persuade them to roost in safety at night they were having none of it.

Then last week we got a clue as to what was going on….

 

Yep.  That’s a fox getting stuck in to what can only be described as an ex-duck.  This is probably one of the only sightings I have of a fox in the 12 years since I’ve moved to Canada and, I have to admit, I found it hard to be angry at it.  In this barren landscape of snow and ice, he (or she) seems to have a right to be here much more than we do.  His red fur stood out brightly against the snow and, though he knew we were watching him, he was hungry enough to risk coming close enough to be shot or caught.

I know the impotent fury of a farmer watching her animal die for no good reason; I have felt the rage of waste and the desolation of loss.  I didn’t feel that as I watched this brightly furred beast tear at frozen flesh.  Perhaps it is that I could see a beautiful animal that was just trying to live, perhaps it was that the duck was already dead so it seemed fruitless to fight it.  But I think, really, it is that the fox reminds me of home.  His kind are more abundant in the UK but I’ve always found them arresting.  They seem to stand in a place between town and country, hunted and reviled by many, adored as a fluffy wilderness dog by others.

As he strayed out onto the pond we saw his tail was ragged, perhaps from a fight or past injury.  He didn’t seem self conscious about his raffish tail manicure and eventually looked straight back at me, while I stood watching him.  He had the air of one who wishes to leave, but wants you to know he goes on his own terms; so he sniffed and walked slightly jumpily across the pond before picking up the pace and trotting across the field to the safety of tree cover.

He glanced back a couple of times, to check nothing was after him I think, and in truth I wish him well.  I sincerely hope my remaining ducks learn to listen to our stern advice about curfew from now on, but I can’t blame the fox for their silly headedness.  Much as I hate to lose livestock, I will treasure the sight of this beautiful animal. His red coat and distinct shape form a timeless silhouette  against the increasingly monochrome winter landscape.  His is the spirit of survival, the desire to live and the beauty of a totally natural thing.

Good luck Mister Fox.  Stay clear well clear of my chickens you red headed bugger.

Sad Tales. Happy Tails.

Sad Tales. Happy Tails.


Of course the pig would have to choose a windy, icy night on which to birth out.  It just had to be 3am after I’d been ill for a few days.  Her milk just had to come in on the night Stephen had to work late and she just had to be in the wrong field and we just had to herd her into the farrowing barn through the ice and wind instead of being cosy and warm by the fire like normal people.

Normal.  People.

No it doesn’t ring true, so I should just let it go.  Normal people don’t put their hand inside a 600lb sow at 3.45am on a Wednesday in March to retrieve tangled piglets and bring them gasping into the world.  But if I didn’t I wouldn’t get to hold squiggling bundles as they feel cold air for the first time, and are propelled by every instinct in their tiny bodies towards the milky safety of their Mama.  I wouldn’t get to feel the powerful pulse of life, working along side an animal that trusts me, gently but firmly pulling breech birth babies out by the tail while sweating in the frigid night air.

I don’t think normal is my bag.


Normal sounds quite appealing when things go badly, like several hours earlier when I was riddled with stress and panic, wondering if we could coax our ready-to-birth sow across the line she’d learned to avoid and respect.  If we could get her to walk across the now massive seeming pasture and into the safety of the farrowing barn, where she and her babies would be safe.  Because let me tell you, that pig does not go anywhere she doesn’t want to.

In the end ‘we’ didn’t.  Stephen did.  The relationship he has with that pig really does astound me, and so he coaxed her carefully in to the barn where she could birth in safety and her piglets could be coddled and healthy.  Putting my arm up a pig’s birth canal was peanuts in comparison to that, I’m really not kidding.

Our clever girl birthed 13 piglets, a beautiful mix of black, Berkshire striped and spotty ones.  They couldn’t be prettier and we sighed with relief when she cleared the second after birth and stood up for a drink.   In September her birthing had been so hard we wondered if she could be a Mama again, but our vet was confident and I’m so glad we took her advice.  Mrs B was a super champ and has been the most content with this litter that I have ever seen.  In her purpose built pen she can see her babies as they cosy up under the heat lamps in their special ‘creep’ box.  They can get out of her way as she gets cosy and moves around, then she lies down (along protective boards that give piglets places to hide) with her udder facing them and oinks for them to come to dinner.  It’s the loveliest scene you can imagine.

And while I like to tell people about the lovely bits, there are sad bits too.  Pigs have lots of babies because they are not all expected to make it.  We’ve worked very hard to create an environment that minimises the risk of crushing and keeps the babies safe and warm.  The pen allows Mrs B freedom of movement (unlike farrowing crates) and when they are all napping under the heat lamps she gets to rest and recover.

But as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall said, ‘Sometimes we don’t get to play God.  Sometimes God does.’

One of the piglets, one we dubbed ‘squealer’ because she was shrieky from minute one, started to show signs of struggle early.  I was out with the kids when Stephen called to tell me she was looking really weak, she seemed to have had some kind of stroke.  He wisely brought her inside and kept her warm and cosy, secretly hoping she might bounce back.  She died on our bed in the sunshine; the warmth of the house and a gentle departure was the best we could offer her.

The next day, when I was doing my bi-hourly check of the piglets, I found another little one down.  She was the runt of the litter, half the size of the others and had struggled from minute one.  Somehow she’d managed to wriggle herself under the slide board during the birthing process and was cold as a stone when we found her there.  While we assisted Mrs B we’d kept her in our jackets, close to our bodies, to warm her.  After a session with me by the fire she’d perked up and returned to her Mama.  When I found her she was cold and still, barely breathing.  I sighed with heavy heart and brought her in.

Warming her up was the priority so I dug out the sling I used to carry the boys in and tucked her in there with a heat pack.  She staying snuggled in for hours and, much to my surprise, carried on breathing.  No one sells pig milk replacer in our area, but our vet had told us that kitten milk might work.  We duly purchased some and began to syringe feed the little one in the hopes of giving her strength.

Syringe feeding can be a risky business, if you get it wrong the piglet will aspirate and die, so slow and steady is the order of the day.  After a good feed we graduated her to a heat pad by the fire, a cosy blanket was her bed and we placed a heat pack next to her to simulate her family.  Piglets are not meant to be alone and she duly snuggled it with all her strength.  In between feeds she slept flat out, breathing softly, the rest of her still.

The tide began to turn around 10.30pm when, after moving her to our bedroom for night feeding,  I came in to find her out of her box and having a power show down with one of our cats.  She squealed and stood her ground fiercely, I’ve never seen a cat look so confused.  That feed was different, she was more wriggly and demanding, sucking down the milk ferociously and with determination.  Around 11.30 she demanded more and again around 2.  By 5am, when she began to refuse the milk and took up biting me instead; I decided that she was ready to return to Mama.  And so she did.

Mrs B, champion mother that she is, welcomed her back with a happy oink and nothing more.  I think she is so used to us that our smell did not alarm her, we sighed with relief the she hadn’t rejected this little scrap and let them get on with it.  ‘Charlotte’ as we’ve dubbed her, is still going strong.  We tried feeding her the milk a couple of times but she made it clear what she thought of that, not much.  We watch in fascination as she fights through the hoard and gets the milk she wants, always first and last at the teat.  She sneaks out while the others are asleep too, she’s not daft that Charlotte.

Yesterday we were out in the barn and we snuck a look under the lid at the babies as they napped.  In a long line they were, top to tail and squeezed together, happily snoozing.  Along the top of several of her siblings, using them as a mini porcine sun lounger, was Charlotte; basking in the heat from beneath and above she snoozed, as happy as a pig can be I think.  A dozen happy pigs, plus Mama, is pretty good going by my reckoning.  Makes icy winds and crazy nights seem worth it.

Power Outage

Power Outage

I’ve never made any bones about that fact that Stephen is the power house behind our farm.  He’s the muscle that brings the hustle, he’s the man with a plan.  Except.

Well except for the fact that he’s human and can break.  I know this because I watched it happen.  Over months discomfort turned into pain, which turned into debilitation.  After ‘treatment’ for back pain that only made things worse, we finally found out that Stephen’s back had herniated.  It could have been the time he carried twelve 5 gallon buckets of water for the cows, it could have been a million other things.  Death by a thousand…well heavy buckets I suppose.

Eventually, after not being taken seriously by a lot of different people, we ended up where I knew we would, emergency surgery.  As ever I’m eternally grateful for the medical services we have access to, as much as we try to do our own thing medically, when you can’t feel your legs you’re really happy that someone spent many years in medical school learning how to make you better.

So it’s been a bit of a road.  A road of discovery, of hard work, of trying to figure out how we are going to manage everything.  I took over the farm chores just after Christmas and it’s been mostly me and the boys up until now.  Stephen has been on call for emergencies (so every other day) and has been coming out to help more than I’d like, but woman power has been keeping things going.

Now I’d like to big myself up, but my work is really a sticky plaster keeping things from gushing.  Though I have learned to use an electric drill with deadly force, I know my limits.  Luckily the work we did last year to improve the infrastructure on the farm has made it possible for me to step into Stephen’s wood smoke smelling farm coat and keep things ticking over.  Without it, I really don’t think it would have been possible for me to manage the animal load with have this winter.  5 pigs, 4 cows, 9 ducks and a flock of laying chickens is more than we’ve carried in the past and was more than I would have thought I could have managed without my love to carry the bulk of it.

So how have I managed?  Well, at times, I’ve felt not very well.  There have been tears of frustration, of anger, of exhaustion.  I’ve been worried, I’ve been fearful, I’ve been extremely cross.  The weather has been a mix of blessedly mild and horribly problematic (I’m looking at you ice rain) but I’m generally grateful for the lack of mind numbing temperatures that make your fingers stop working after 5 minutes.

There have been setbacks, more than a few.  A frozen water supply because one of our cows likes to pull the plug out of the trough heater.  The pigs all deciding a fun game of ‘swap houses’ would liven things up during the long winter months.  A less fun game of ‘try to shag my underage daughter’ meant that the house swap really was not groovy and had to be resolved asap despite the fact that one of the players is a 600lb boar who ain’t going no where if he doesn’t want to.  And then there was the day when I walked into the chicken house to find that most of my flock had been murdered in the night by a weasel that I would really, really like to kill.

And that was just the last 2 weeks.

But hey, as my neighbour says, that’s farming.  As the weeks have gone on I’ve found my rhythm.  I’ve worked out what I can and can’t do, what I will and won’t tolerate.  I’ve got my own little routines and have figured out ways to make things easier.  I’m taking pride in learning new skills and am basking in the glow of some pretty heavy kudos coming my way from my beloved.  He’s a man not given to false praise I can tell you.  I feel a bit broken in places but I’m proud too, proud of keeping things going forward and of not giving in.  I’ve really wanted to at times, but these weeks have given me a real sense of ownership over aspects of the farm I never saw as mine.  I’m making more decisions, I’m able to see the issues more clearly because I’m part of it all more.  I’m finding a mental stamina that feels good to possess.

Plus I’ve had help.  I’ve had Stephen’s knowledge which is extensive, his physical help whenever it’s been needed or even when it’s not (sitting back doesn’t come naturally to him).  Our neighbour has stepped in and moved hay, shifted snow and been a support as he has for the last 5 years.  My dear friend and her husband have helped with childcare, meals, shifting heavy feed sacks and general sanity preservation; things really would have been bleak without their amazing back up.  We have loving family members offering to get on flights and help out if need be, plus the emotional support we need from those we love the most.

The boys (particularly Huwyl) have been basically wonderful.  Hauling wood, water and straw bales around the farm isn’t the usual remit of an 11 year old, but my lad has been by my side whenever possible.  Though they are still young the boys are learning the importance of family sticking together, of working side by side to support each other when it’s needed.  I’m proud of the young men these lads are turning into, I’m grateful for their open hearts and strong shoulders.

So here we are.  Counting the weeks until spring, watching the weather forecast obsessively and turning our faces to the wind to see if it feels like spring is coming yet.  There are good days and bad days, but that’s the way it always is.  A lot of the time I wonder why, why do we put this stress on ourselves.  Why do we make life harder than it has to be?  Wouldn’t it be nice to just lounge in bed a little more each day?  Wouldn’t it be easier to just not?

Yes, it would be.

But then, the moments that make it all seem worthwhile would be gone too.  The special glimmer that shines like a diamond sliver in a handful of sand.  The feel of a heartbeat on a fresh born baby critter, the long chats at the farm gate while the fragrance of wild summer air surrounds you.  The knowledge inside you that made something, did something, created something where otherwise nothing would exist.  It’s what keeps you moving forward, the memory of that, the hope of that.  It’s addicting.  I’m hooked.  It’s a lost cause.

Dig for Victory

Dig for Victory

It’s hard to know where to begin isn’t it?  The onslaught that has been the last week has blindsided so many of us that it’s hard to know how to have a reaction.  How do you react to an entire country being given over to hatred and oppression?  How do we react to our neighbours advocating for behaviour that taints and diminishes us all?  How should we react to individuals and institutions that threaten people we know and love?

That is a lot for one person to take on, that’s a lot for one person to absorb.  It’s a lot of anger, a lot of disappointment, a lot of fear.  An honest reaction is to want to turn away, to want to take a break, to breathe in the midst of the storm of noise and nastiness.  We want to take refuge, we want to let our hearts heal.  We want to believe that people are essentially good and will do the right thing; it’ll all be ok in the end.

I don’t believe that.

I no longer believe that people are essentially good and will do the right thing if given the chance.  I believe those people exist, I believe there are a lot of them, I know a lot of them.  But the truth is, there are a lot of people who just want what’s right for them and aren’t really that bothered about what happens to those affected by those needs or desires.  It’s easy to forget about them when they don’t live near us, they don’t work alongside us, they are not our neighbours.  When they are workers in fields far away, it’s easy to forget who grows and harvests our food.  When they are picking over mountains of refuse on another continent it’s easy to forget who deals with our waste and excess.

We live in a society that tells us more is better.  More stuff, more food, more entitlements, more land, more entertainment, more me.  More.  We are saturated with what we should have, how we can get it and who’s stopping us from getting it.  This isn’t about meeting basic needs for most people, it’s about meeting a standard that we’ve been told is important.  It’s about getting ahead, pushing past other people and winning.  Whatever the cost.  We’re not going to be told we can’t have what we want, even when it’s our planet telling us enough is enough.  Instead we elect leaders who tell us we can have what we want and don’t worry about the planet, or the workers, or the person who belongs to a different religion to you.

Except.

Those people are my friends.  And they are probably your friends too.  People who happen to believe that covering their bodies modestly is an act of self worth, we are told should be denigrated.  I guess we can’t sell self worth, we can’t plaster it on a billboard and use it to push purchases of beer or fast food.  And people from other countries?  Well they are just weird and don’t deserve to be here.  Unlike you and me.  Except I’m an immigrant aren’t I?  I may be white and educated but I’m a stranger in a strange land as much as anyone else who moved here.  Plus, guess what!  Anyone who isn’t native to this country is an immigrant too!  So while we look at this group and say they don’t belong, there are native people looking at us and saying ‘Seriously?’.

Also women aren’t a minority group, and feminism isn’t a dirty word.  We are half of the population and we don’t like it when people tell us who we are and what we should look like and that we don’t deserve to be safe.  That we don’t deserve to own ourselves.  I get cross about that stuff and I carry a pitchfork around sometimes so just watch it, ok?  Because I decide for me, I decide what goes where and who gets to be around me.  I decided what I’m worth and I decided a long time ago that what goes in my brain and the words that come out of my mouth matter more to me than anything else.  I like messing around with my hair and love me some vintage style but never confuse that for a brain on go slow.  I’ve never met a man who impressed me enough to make me think I’m less than him.  No one has managed that yet.

When I birth an animal or dig a garden or grow my own food or teach or drag myself out of bed in the middle of the night or at dawn because I’m needed, my uterus doesn’t get in the way.  I see things differently, I see things Stephen doesn’t see and vice versa. We are different so we are a good team.  My animals don’t care much that I’m female, they don’t care that it is female hands serving breakfast.  When they are sick they are glad for the help I offer, when they are naughty they run away as I chase them.  The farm is a great leveller like that, it’ll screw with you no matter what apparatus you carry around in your jeans.  That’s equality I suppose.

If I need medical help I’m going to ask my friend who’s a paramedic.  A woman who goes out day after day and deals with crap I can’t even imagine.  Luckily she has a wife at home who loves her more than sunshine, so I think that’s what keeps her strong.  But don’t be trying to tell me their marriage isn’t important or good or valid.  That woman would save your life, even if you did think that, but don’t think it anyway.  It’s a stupid thing to think.  It’s a hateful thing to think.  Don’t do it.

But what’s that got to do with growing carrots anyway?  What’s the point farm lady?

Well the point is this.  During the Second World War Britain was cut off from food supplies from other countries and had to figure out how to feed several million people when 60% of her food was imported.  Britain figured it out.  There are some issues with that legacy (hello factory farming) but one of the big things that happened was that people got back to growing their own.  When food is rationed but your garden isn’t, you are very motivated to grow something for the table.  My parents were born during rationing and I’ve grown up fascinated by the resilience and determination of people at that time.  When I grow my own food it isn’t just to add a sprinkle to the table, it is an act of defiance.  I am showing that I am strong, that I can grow things, that I can make something out of almost nothing.  It makes me proud, it feeds my family and it’s a little less I have to buy from companies I don’t like.

When I raise animals for my family and to sell to other families, I’m diverting a little bit of money away from factory farming and towards animals who live in sunshine and fields.  We are a drop in the ocean but we are keeping our animals out of a system we believe is inhumane and producing healthy food and healthy land.  We spend an insane amount of time and money to do it but it feels like the right thing to do.  Maybe that’s why we can’t stop even when it feels like too much.  Doing the right thing is addictive.  It gets under your skin and then you don’t want it any other way.

But it isn’t enough, not even close.  It’s not enough to create something beautiful and wonderful and difficult and hard.  It’s not enough to sit back in our corner of the world and shake our heads and say “Oh that’s terrible. They shouldn’t do that.”  Not nearly enough.  We can’t turn inwards and say “I can’t look at that.” We can’t pretend it isn’t happening and keep on keeping on.  It’ll take more than that.

We have to dig in.  We have to be louder and stronger and more determined.  We have to get knocked down and get back up again.  Because there are plenty of people on the front lines who can’t look away, who are genuinely afraid and at risk.  There are people who are being harassed and harmed and even killed because of the colour of their skin.  And that was before a sickening orange demagogue won an election and told the world that being a sleazy hate monger bag of filth, that makes anything that comes out of my animals look like a tasty milkshake, is the way to go.  Today a rabbi in my home city woke up to a swastika on her door and ugly words painted across it.  No it’s really not enough, but we have to throw everything we’ve got as this problem and we have to never give up.

So this is what  I am going to do, this is how I will fight.  This may change, this may evolve but for now it’s what I’ve got and so I’m going with it.

My farm is a place where all are welcome and if you disagree feel free not to come here.  This is a zone of safety where you are accepted whatever your race, ethnicity, religion, orientation or gender.  You may have a hard time if you are allergic to chickens but you are welcome anyway.  My own person is a zone of safety too.  I will advocate for tolerance, acceptance and normality whenever I can.  I will argue, push, cajole and persuade; I will not let things go or be polite, I will challenge and disagree even when it’s uncomfortable.  I will never give up, I will never give in.

More than that I will advocate in our society, I will invest more of my time in online and in person work.  I will strive towards a safe society for all, because I no longer believe that we’ve achieved that.  There is a lot of work to do and I’m going to have to do some of it.  Those of us who believe in justice and fairness need to raise our voices and actions to push back those who would oppress, suppress and repress.  We need to listen to people of other races and religions and find out what they need us to do, we need to use our privilege (whatever form that takes) to make things better for other people.  I will try and do that, I will try to learn and listen and change things.

I will continue to teach my children about their role in the world. I will continue to teach them that they have a duty to help, to improve things, to work towards a better world.  I have explained to them that as white males they are already valued more than their mother, more than some of their friends.  I hope they will use that to speak out for people with less of a voice, that they will react against injustice with the same honesty of heart as they do now.  I’ll be right behind them if they do.  I’ll be right behind them if they don’t.  But I think they will because when I try to explain the world to them they are furious, outraged and horrified.  When I explain that friends of ours are at risk they want to help and do what they can.  I trust they they will be good men, I will keep doing my part to make it so.

Last, but not least, I will stay angry.  I will light a fire inside myself and I will not let it go out.  I will read things that make me uncomfortable and I will not look away.  I will use it to fuel my actions, to keep me strong and to give strength to my compassion and determination.  I will not hate but I will not yield.  I will not shrug my shoulders at casual misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, islamophobia.  I will not let remarks slide by for the sake of decorum, I will ask questions and bring into the light the low lying prejudices that we all possess.  That is my job and I will do it.

I will dig inside and find the resources I need to send out something good into the world.  I will share the knowledge I have about literature and books and words; I will share what I know about the land and protecting the earth as much as we can.  I will teach people that they can do things they didn’t think they could, I will show them that they are capable of wonderful things.  I will try to be fair, I will try to be good, I will do my best even though I know I am so terribly, terribly flawed.  I will remember this when I look at the flaws of others and feel angry with them.

Let’s take a deep breath and here we go.  I hope you are with me my friends, I don’t doubt that you are.  But no matter what we’ll keep moving forward and pushing back against the darkness.  So if you’re with me let’s get digging, apparently there is a hell of a lot to do.

Long Hot Summer

Long Hot Summer

It would be impossible to sum up a season in just a few words, but given that I’ve not written here for months I find myself trying to do just that.  Of course that is partly why I haven’t written in months because every time I try to encapsulate our life neatly, succinctly, I come up with nothing.  But then who has a neat life?  Certainly not me.

So I’ll probably write about different aspects of the last few months as I write about what is happening now and in future posts, but for now I suppose the easiest way to summarise our season so far is intense.  The weather, the work, the projects…it’s all been very intense.  Here in Eastern Ontario we’ve experience a severe drought this summer, leading to challenges we’ve not faced before.  From crispy pasture that doesn’t feed our cows to deciding which plants to water and which will have to fend for themselves.  Suffice to say a lot of our grass is looking the worse for wear.

This year reminds me a lot of 2011.  That was the year we built the house and there was a drought/heatwave that year too; but really it’s the work and intensity of focus needed that feels the same.  This year we have had to decide whether to scale the farm back to allow our current infrastructure to be enough, or to restructure to allow for future expansion.  We chose the latter, to the surprise of no one who has ever met either of us.  But this year we decided to get smart about it, we planned carefully, took a deep breath and gave all our money to people with diggers and trucks full of gravel.  Not what most people choose to spend their savings on, but then conforming to the norm is really not our strong suit.

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I will try to write more about the details of our restructure another time, but the brief list is that we’ve drained the cow field and created a safe concrete pad for them and us to work on, we’ve built new pig barns for safer farrowing of piglets, we’ve added a new gilt pig, we’ve gravelled the garden, extended the driveway, cleared out building debris and made a new garden where only crap stood before.  We’ve also done the usual fencing, moving and feeding of animals as well as the plethora of other chores that go along with the farm.  And I promise I wasn’t being sarcastic when I said that is the brief list, it really has been a bit bonkers.

When I say ‘we’ of course, I mean mostly Stephen when it comes to the building and infrastructure parts.  We plan and organise together, but when it comes to putting nails in things or moving tonnes of gravel (not a metaphor) by hand in the boiling sun of a heatwave, I can take no credit.  Stephen is the engine that powers the farm and I’ve never seen him work harder than he has this year.  My job is basically to do everything else and stop him from falling over from heat exhaustion.  Or regular exhaustion.  Both are entirely possible.  DSC_0113 DSC_0116 DSC_0126

This summer has felt to me like pushing against a really big boulder until it shifts a few feet.  On the surface the changes may not seem huge to the casual bystander, but to us they are massive.  To walk across a field without being calf deep in mud after a rainstorm is practically miraculous.  To have a purpose built barn where little pigs can be born brings us nothing but joy.  The work has been hard and seemed endless at times, but this work will lay a foundation that the next 5 years will be built upon.  It will allow us to add more cows, breed more pigs and do a better job of it while we’re about it.  It’s not sexy but to us it’s the most important work we could have done.

While Stephen was building farm infrastructure I made a garden.  I sowed, hoed and weeded my way through the spring and summer and now we are starting to bring in buckets of produce that must be canned, dried, bagged and stored.  It can seem a bit endless at times, but I am anticipating the joy of pulling frozen vegetables out of the freezer mid winter or the sharp tang of currant jam while the snow falls.  It’s what keeps me going when my feet, back and every other muscle I have hurts, complains and generally acts like a big baby.  It’s work I could avoid, yet it’s work that needs doing.  Perhaps I can sum it up by saying I don’t always enjoy canning but I enjoy having canned.

Yesterday, while I picked tomatoes, the boys picked marrows (overgrown zucchini) from the summer squash bed.  They were delighted with themselves and generally acted as though they had discovered buried treasure with each one.  They stacked them like logs and said things like “Look at this badboy!” whenever they dragged another hugely striped squash out onto the gravel that now surrounds the beds so neatly.  Many of the squash will go to feeding animals, giving pigs and chickens a welcome treat.  But the real gift is when I remember sitting on the front step with the seed packet in my hand wondering if it was a bit late to get them started, I decided not and in they went.  A few months, some weeding, watering and loving care later and there is a pile of 16 marrows basking in the sunshine.  I don’t know if that’s a metaphor for something or not, but it seems like a very good use of my time.  DSC_0129 DSC_0131 DSC_0132

This week I’ve processed a couple of buckets of tomatoes (9 jars in the pantry thank you) and our second bucket of elderberries from the trees we planted 3 years ago.  Last year I got a small jar of berries, this year it’s been 2 buckets full.  They are currently drying in my new (to me) snazzy dehydrator that I bought from a very nice lady earlier in the year.  I was nervous about such a big purchase but even Stephen has commented on how much it is being used.  Sage and calendula, mint, lemon balm, berries and leaves have all found their way onto those screens and into jars.  My pantry is slowly beginning to fill again, with food and medicine from our own gardens, from the land around us; we are doing our best to make the most of what we have and build what needs to be built.

It hasn’t been the season I had imagined it would be, it hasn’t been what I expected.  But I think it’s been what it had to be, a foundation year that will allow us to build a future.  In the meantime I’m enjoying the chance to breath again now that the hottest of the weather has broken and I’m trying to make sure that every day isn’t too full as we enjoy that last weeks of a long hot summer.   I think it will be one we remember for a good while.

Morag, the cow who lost her moo.

Morag, the cow who lost her moo.

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3 years ago, when I was in the UK visiting my Dad with the boys, I got a message from Stephen saying “I just bought a cow!”.  My response was something supportive like “You bought a what?!” until I eventually established that no he wasn’t kidding and yes he’d bought a cow.  A real one.  Granted the messages had been preceded by ones like “I’m at an auction!” and “They have cows here!” so I really should have seen it coming.  When I told my Dad and he expressed surprise I said “Are you really surprised?  Doesn’t this seem exactly like the kind of thing we do?”.  He conceded this was the case.

I’ll admit to being unimpressed by Stephen’s mystery purchase and when he sent me a picture of a scraggly, skinny and frankly hacked off looking cow my spirits didn’t lift massively.  It was when he told me that she was a bit underweight, a bit unloved and pregnant that the tide started to turn for me.  I have a bit of a thing for bringing neglected things back to life (hence the purchase of 100 acres of derelict land) and she was just that; neglected, unwanted and now all ours.

A couple of weeks later our second hand cow calved out a still born calf, a truly sad outcome that hit us quite hard.  She was boarding with our kind neighbour who looked after her perfectly, but he told us that with her being underweight and a bit neglected she was at a higher risk of losing her calf.  On most farms that would have been the end for her, she wasn’t calving healthy calves so the road would have firmly ended.  But not with us.  That summer she ran with our neighbour’s bull and the following spring she calved out a beautiful bull calf for us.  Quietly and without fuss she proved her Mama skills.

Devoted Mama that she was we bred her again and last spring she gave us Daisy, a beautiful Angus/Simmental cross, born in the pasture on a warm day in May.  Again she showed what a devoted mother she was and raised up a strong and healthy girl.  Our herd was growing and Morag was its centre, the others followed her lead and were kept in line by her firm but fair direction.  She was the Queen Cow and, frankly, she was our favourite.  Extra oats for Morag all winter?  No problem.  Someone wants their head scratched?  Morag is first in line.  She let us fuss her, for as long as she wanted and no longer, and had a judgmental stare a 17th century nun would have been proud of.  We adored her.

 

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When Morag first came to live with us we noticed that she never mooed.  Now contented cows don’t have that much to moo about, but our other cow would occasionally let out a moo or two, maybe of greeting, maybe to alert us to the fact that a few more oats would be quite welcome thank you.  But Morag never made a sound.  Sometimes a raspy cough but that is it.  But when her first calf came along that changed, a Mama needs to be able to call to her baby and that’s what she tried to do.  At first her moo was harsh, like a voice that has gone unused for a really long time; but one day, when her little guy had strayed just that bit too far she let out a true Mama bellow.  After that she could moo like a champ, like a lot of us she found her voice when she was a Mum.

Last summer we bred our top girl up to some primo Angus love juice.  We were hoping for a lovely heifer to finally succeed her mother to the crown, years down the line we’d have Morag’s daughter to continue her proud heritage.  She duly fell pregnant on the first try and munched her way healthily through summer, fall and winter emerging wide and very, very pregnant when spring finally dawned.  With just two weeks to go we were excited about her calving out and enjoying the warmer weather that had finally arrived.

On Saturday morning we went out to find her ‘cast’, stuck on her side and unable to get up.  We called our neighbour and then the vet to check the calf and help us get her up.  We determined that she couldn’t stand, that her hip was either dislocated or broken, but either way things weren’t good.  We managed, after much work and a very long day, to get her in a comfy warm spot where she could eat and drink and be warmed by the sun.  The vet induced the calf as she was less that two weeks before her due date and we watched and waited.  Stephen didn’t sleep that night, going out every hour to check that she hadn’t rolled back onto her side and managing to get her back over when she did.  It was a real act of devotion on his part.

The next day, the hottest of the year, we waited and watched again.  We hoped she would calve out naturally and perhaps the reduced load on her body would free her hip up to get back into place.  We prepared for the worst and hoped for the best.  As her labour progressed we had great hope, she’d birthed her last two with relative ease and calm; but time dragged on and even our neighbour began to be concerned.  We called the vet again, hoping he could help to pull the calf or give her a jab to help strengthen her contractions.  She was clearly worn out and the calf was at grave risk.

Within moments the vet pronounced that we had two choices, lose Morag or lose them both.  Her pelvis had shattered as a result of what can only be described as a freak accident, and possibly compounded by her not being a young cow (we think somewhere between 11 and 16 at the outside), there was no possibility of recovery.  We agreed to a c-section to bring out her calf and then he would end her life as quickly as possible.

I sat by her head as the vet worked, I stroked her neck and told her how brave she was.  I promised that we would look after her baby for her, I told her what a good girl she was.  Stephen helped to pull the calf out and clear her of mucus while I tried to keep Morag calm.  She was not in pain but she was scared, I tried to help her feel better.  I remembered how I had felt when my first boy came into the world via c-section; I cried while I did it and for a while after too.  She saw her little baby girl come into the world, the girl we had so hoped for, but had never imagined she would be born like this.  Born to trade places with her own Mama within moments.  And then Morag was gone.

We tended to calf in the sunshine, rubbing her with towels and cuddling her.  We sat with Morag while our neighbour dug a place for her in our woods, a peaceful spot under a break in the trees.  The vet went off to get colostrum from a nearby dairy for us and so we sat together with our new girl and our old girl.  I couldn’t seem to stop crying and even Stephen, my tough northern chap, had a suspiciously husky tone to his voice.  It had all been so quick, so sudden and so terribly, terribly sad.

At that moment our sow, basking blissfully in the sun a few feet away, broke wind in a long and pleasingly full bodied parp.  It went on for some time and seemed to make her even more satisfied.  We turned and looked at her, laughing at the timing and watched her piglets bouncing around her, enjoying the sun alongside their Mummy.  We laughed because it was funny and because, as the saying goes, if you don’t laugh you’ll cry.

Morag has stayed on the farm, she’ll always be here with us.  We didn’t want her life to end this way but I’m glad her final years were spent as Queen of the Herd, pampered, adored, praised and loved.  Her baby girl will grow up to be the rightful heiress to her kingdom I’m sure, we are already devoted to her, feeding, stroking, fussing and spoiling her.  We decided to call her Wee Morag Silver Linings, because she is the gift her Mama gave us.

I told my neighbour, a kind but laconic fellow, a man of few words to say the least, that I could see she would be spoiled rotten in no time at all.

“Well,” he replied “Better spoiled than not I’d say.”

I agree.

Winter’s here

Winter’s here

After what seemed a very long time indeed, where fall stretched out into late November and then December, the winter finally arrived.  In the very last few days of the year, ice rain slipped slowly from the sky and left a glassy coating on everything around us.  With the temperatures finally dropping enough to freeze the ankle deep mud, we welcomed the colder weather and even dreamed of a cleansing coating of snow.

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An afternoon dog walk gave us the chance to wander through crunchy grass, revelling in solid ground beneath our feet.  While I would never claim to enjoy ice rain while it’s happening, the resulting beauty is undeniable.  The foundation was laid for snow that would come a few days later, bringing with it the comforting feeling of enclosure and restfulness.  A feeling I’ve long been waiting for.

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As we wandered the world seemed transformed, held in suspended animation by a thin cocoon of ice and frost.  Left over crab apples seemed to hover a little, as if ready to fall but unable to.  The netting we used to create a protective, chicken proof, fence around my garlic bed was transformed into a glistening thing, shimmering with a thousand points of light as misty gold flowed unctuously across our afternoon.

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Walking back up to the house, cold and cleaned out by the walk, we turned to see the world on fire.  The creamy, yellowed light was captured like a candle flame on top of each blade of grass, each twig, each tree.  You cannot help but be swept away by a moment like that, by the sheer brilliance and beauty that nature can throw down in front of you as you are casually walking home.  They happen, of course, a million times a day.  Moment after moment of something stunning happening somewhere, but it’s all outside, outside waiting for you to come and notice.

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I can’t capture with my camera the way the earth lights up as the sun sets; the way a stem of Queen Anne’s Lace, coated in ice, can shine like a beacon lighting our way home.  I can hope to show a glimpse of the show we witnessed, and hope you got to see something equally beautiful where you are instead.  I snapped a few pictures and then lowered my camera, acknowledging the hopelessness of my quest; instead I stood and looked not with a lens but my eyes.  I soaked it in, feeling as though some of the light were soaking in to me, I breathed it in on the brisk, icy air.

As the ball of gold dipped behind the trees we turned to the house, we began the work of evening chores, carrying buckets out into the twilight.  But as we closed the doors against the cold air of night, I like to think we carried a little bit of the gold in with us, staining the inside of our eyelids as we turned to the hearth and rest.