Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Hawk

sits in bare branches
considering which
of my
hens to eat next
while I sit at
the window
considering how long it will be
before I get arrested,
if I shoot him.

 the wind shifts
and the hawk
elegant wings
to rise in silent circles

and I decide to let him live
just because
he is so


Monday, October 6, 2014

Free Range Fricassee


 If someone had told me thirty years ago that I would one day kill a chicken and giggle while doing it, I would have scoffed.  Yesterday, Joe and I beheaded four of our roosters-who-should-have-been-hens.  I didn't think I could ever find any humor in death, but my husband looked so silly with specks of blood and feathers on his face that I did it.  I giggled.
     Joe was kind enough to do the beheading while I boiled water over on the other side of the fence, so I guess I can’t claim to be a total farm girl, yet.  My father says his grandmother used to chase the chickens down, grab them up by their necks, give each neck a quick twirl, and bring the old girls in for the stewing.  Our process was a bit more complicated.
     First, I read a book about how to butcher chickens.  Joe humored me in this, but thirty pages later I decided it might be easier to just listen to him.  He had, after all, done this before with his mother and had the chopping block and ax to prove it.  So, he gathered up four of our overdose of roosters and guided me through the process.
    After head removal, the roosters were tossed into a bucket to bleed out.  They shuddered and shook as rigor-mortise set in, but my book assured me that this was the dance of the dead.  Then we dipped the carcasses in 160 degree water.  The feathers came off pretty easily and in forty minutes, we had four headless, featherless birds ready for phase two.
     Phase two was to singe the long hairs off of the body.  Joe’s mom had always done this with a rolled up newspaper which she lit and passed over the bodies, but after almost setting the kitchen, the porch and the yard on fire, we decided to use a blow torch instead.    When the roosters were as slick-skinned as body-builders, they were dropped into the sink for phase three.

     Phase three made me appreciate my underdeveloped sense of smell.  We made a slit in the skin around the crop and removed it, cut off the feet and then worked to carefully remove the intestines without any spillage into the body cavity.  We were mostly successful at this, but since Joe’s mom had always done the innard removal, we had to experiment a little and consult the book (which frustratingly had no pictures).  By the fourth bird, we had mostly figured it out.
    The four boys, which at this point actually looked like store bought chickens only skinnier, were placed in water for a cold soak to remove the rest of the body heat.  Then they were placed in the fridge for storage and aging.

  The final step was the easiest.  We watched a video on You-tube of Joel Salatin butchering.  He had lots of fancy equipment and completed four hens in ten minutes.  He recommended using a knife as little as possible, tearing the skin open instead, to save meat.  He said every ounce of meat was worth fifteen cents, which made his chickens worth $2.40 a pound.
   Tonight we are having $4.80 worth of chicken fricassee.  But what we are really having is a farm-raised, free-range, antibiotic free, cleanly slaughtered supper.  That's worth more than any fat, overfed, cage-raised hen that money can buy.


Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Manna and Tomatoes

     Having a garden is a marvel.  I step out the door, walk twenty steps and palm a ripe red tomato or I wander the rows eating tender green beans like candy as I admire the beauty of all those growing things.  In July, the seeds I planted in May are showing a promise of abundance.  I run to the house, first tomato in hand to share with Joe, and we slice it reverently to eat with just a little salt and pepper.  Or we strip the silk from those early ears of corn and drop them into the pot that’s already boiling and stand over it drooling in anticipation.  
     But in September, my humble garden has morphed into an an overachiever.  It used to offer tomatoes shyly, nestled below green leaves.  Now it dangles them brazenly in the sun.  It hammers me with abundance.   “Come gather beans now!” it screams whenever I step into the yard.  And the flighty corn, so vibrant in its youth, is now pale and whining about the load of ears it carries.   
     We eat tomatoes for breakfast, tomatoes for lunch and tomatoes for supper.  I’m even tempted to hide them in dessert.  I have made and canned tomato juice, whole tomatoes, tomato ketchup, tomato soup, pizza sauce, spaghetti sauce and salsa.  I have gathered, de-silked , shucked and cut five buckets of corn.  I have pulled and dried a bushel of onions.  I have picked, snapped and canned twenty quarts of beans and still the garden throws vegetables at me in reckless abandon.
     I always feel overwhelmed at the end of the growing season.  Longing for the garden to cease and desist.  But then, I notice that there are no more green tomatoes on the vines.  There are no more bean blossoms.  There are no more baby cucumbers.  The corn rustles dryly in the wind. The garden is shutting down.  And, I after longing for such a moment am sad.
     When the Israelites wandered in the dessert, they cried out for food and God gave them manna.  They ate it three times a day for forty years.  I ate tomatoes three times a day for a month and whined about it.  Children in Africa would eat them gladly for as long as they could get them.  I have much to learn about gratitude and abundance.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Spring Cleaning

     With fall fast approaching I find that I am feeling rushed to complete my spring cleaning.  “What?” you ask.  “You haven’t finished your spring cleaning?  Spring is long past.”  You’re right spring is long past and I haven’t even started my spring cleaning.  There, I’ve said it out loud.  I am a spring cleaning drop out. 
     Over the years, I’ve tried to get excited about moving all the furniture out of a room, cleaning it side to side and top to bottom, and then putting it all back.  After all, Livvie Walton and the girls certainly seem to have a lot of fun when they do it on TV Land.  My problem is that when I start something, it usually brings to mind something else that I need to do. 
     For example:   To start my spring cleaning, I  prepare to move the  blanket chest in the living room out to the porch, but realize it’s really heavy,  so I open it to see if there’s anything I should remove.  As I am sorting through the contents, I find a blanket that would look really nice on my couch, so I pull it out and drape it over the back.  But now a quilt, that’s folded in a basket, doesn’t match so I carry it upstairs to put on the shelf with the other quilts, which are stacked beneath a coat that needs some buttons.  Hmm… It won’t take me but a minute to sew those on.
     So, I get the coat and the buttons, but the blue thread is not in my sewing box.  I walk downstairs to look next to my chair and notice a great magazine article about spring cleaning, so I sit down to read that.  Maybe I can get some tips that will make me more efficient.  When I finish the article, I find the thread and head back upstairs.  Once the buttons are attached, I take the coat in to my child’s room, which is really dusty.  I can’t leave it like that.
     Back down the steps I head to get a dust rag and some dusting spray.  Might as well dust the whole downstairs while I’m at it.  Downstairs dusted, I climb back up and dust the upstairs.  Then I notice that the screen to Scott’s window has fallen out onto the porch roof, so I squeeze through the window to retrieve it and, while I’m there, I see that the chickens are in my garden.
     I run down the steps, out the door and through the yard, waving my arms and hollering at the renegade hens until they fly over the fence and hot foot it back to the hen house.  On my trip back to the house, I notice that the lawn really needs to be mowed, so I get the lawnmower, gas it up and trim up the yard. 
     When I finish that chore, I’m thirsty so I head to the kitchen for a glass of water.  The clean glasses are all in the dishwasher which I unload.  As I’m unloading, I notice how messy the cabinet where I keep my plastic-ware has become.  I sit on the floor and sort through all the different size bowls, trying to match them up with lids and discovering that I have 40 lids that no longer have mates.  I toss those, which fills the trash can, so I take it out and dump it.
     I stand for a moment admiring the beautiful spring flowers and that’s when I remember.  I am supposed to be spring cleaning my house.  But, now it’s supper time.  I’ll finish tomorrow. 

     After supper, I sit down in my chair.  Why am I so tired?   I didn’t get a bit of spring cleaning done.  The trunk in the living room is still standing open and, as I reach over to close it, I notice a stack of pictures that need to be sorted and placed in albums.  I’ll do that as soon as I finish my spring cleaning.  Which I might finish this fall…if I don’t open that trunk again.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014


     One of the things I’ve learned on the farm is patience.  I am thinking this as I sit on the steps of the chicken house waiting for the last hen to decide it’s time for bed.  She is still outside, pecking around, hopeful that she’ll find one last beetle or seed before flapping up to the roost.  I know that if I go into the chicken yard and try to shoo her toward the building, she will run the other way.  That’s the way chickens are.  So I wait.
     The waiting is not so bad.  It’s the cusp of evening and a cool breeze tickles my face as I stare across the dimming pastures.  Birds are singing their evening songs and, across the road, the lambs are bleating for their mamas.  I can see them in the pewter light, running down the hill to catch up with the ewes who are waiting-like me. 
    To my left, the cows begin to mosey through the gate and I know that will lead to another kind of waiting because, after I capture this last chicken, I will fill the grain bucket and carry it out to pasture for the three calves I’m still tending.  The cows will stand around me in a circle, staring at that grain and hoping I’ll leave so they can butt the calves out of the way and steal their meal.  But, I am seasoned in patience.  I deliver the food and then upend the bucket.  I’ll sit there until the calves finish, jumping up and waving my arms or pitching pebbles whenever a cow ventures too close.
     Perched on my bucket, I glance over at my garden.  I’m waiting for the first cucumbers, tomatoes and beans.  Seeds planted in late May have finally begun to look like they will bear.  Every day there is a new unfurling, a new flower, a new leaf, a new pod, a new bug.  Gardening is all about the waiting and then the dealing with what comes along, knowing that whatever it is will be different from yesterday.
     So, I wait for things, but when I really study the farm, I realize that I don’t know anything about true waiting.  When this farm was first settled, I’m guessing the meadows and pastures were all covered in trees and rocks.  There’s a small graveyard in our front meadow and a gravestone that tells me that Samuel Wilson died here in 1862 after living only 47 years.  Did he get to see the fruits of all his labor after toiling each year to clear another few acres?  Did his wife wait anxiously for the garden to produce its first green bean or ear of corn because they hadn’t had any fresh fruits or vegetables for nine months? 
     With a round baler, a weather window of three dry days means we can harvest a significant amount of hay in a short time.  I like to think of Sam Wilson scanning the skies all summer long, hoping for fair weather clouds so he could proclaim to his bonneted wife, “This is it!  I think we can get some hay up this week.”  He would have hand-scythed, raked, shocked and then stacked enough hay to get him through the winter.  What we harvest in one day, Sam would have patiently accomplished over the length of a summer, watching his hay stacks grow slowly, anticipating fat cattle in the snow.
    Sometimes I fear that modern life has stolen our ability to go slowly.  I see this especially in the young who carry so much at their finger tips.  I watched a group of my son’s friends in conversation not long ago.  They were all holding cell phones and i-pads and, as the conversation flowed, they referenced things.   They argued about movie stars, history and their friends relationships, casually scrolling through the world with their fingers to exclaim, “Look, see, I was right.”        
     I wonder.  Would Sam Wilson, long dead in my pasture, have looked at how fast the world is moving and told us we were missing out on the joy of things gained slowly, or would he have said, “Hot diggity, where can I get a round-baler?” Generations move forward.  What’s lost is replaced with something new.  Is life better or worse as a result? I might know the answer before I die.  I guess I’ll just have to wait and see.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Dressed for Success

 Yesterday, I wore my white tennis shoes for the first time since I bought them three months ago.  The purchase seemed like a good idea at the time, but that’s because I forgot to factor in where I live.  To get to my car, I have to walk out of my gate and stroll across five yards of a forty acre pasture.  When the cows and sheep met to discuss personal hygiene, I think they unanimously elected to use that five yards for all offensive bodily deposits.
     My white tennis shoes are now polka-dotted with brown.  I try to be careful, but my mother will tell you that I was born to be dirty.  On my first date with my husband I impressed him by stepping in a mud puddle, twice.  Living on a farm presents more hazards than puddles.  Now that I am retired, my fashion choices are dictated by those hazards.
     In the morning, I get up and pull on yesterday’s dirty jeans and tee, slide into my mud boots and stroll across the pasture to switch out the dogs.  The one who has been loose for the night bounds up to meet me.  He knows there’s some cat food waiting for him and, excited by the thought of fish-flavored nuggets, he jumps up planting both dirty paws on my thighs. 
      After I switch the dogs, I mosey over to the hen house to release the feathered inmates.  Spell bound by the dew-pearled cobwebs strung like party lights along the fence, I don’t notice the cow pies until I slip in one. Manure is slicker than grease and I can’t stop my downward slide. I rise up, my backside and hands stained greenish brown, and move on to the chicken house where I fill the chicken fountain, splashing enough water in the process to soak my left pants leg. 
     The three bottle calves, who have graduated from milk to grain, trot up.  The oldest one, Ralphie, has never given up the idea that I am his mother.  He bumps up against me, sucking my elbow and rubbing his dusty sides against my shirt as I lug his feed to the grain pans.  Chores done, I dust off my pants, and consider changing into clean clothes.  But, the garden needs to be weeded and the shed cleaned out.  If I change, I won’t be clean for long.   I’m not expecting company, so I elect to stay dirty.  I just have to remember not to sit down.
       After lunch, I discover that I need to go to town for several small purchases from the general store, and, again, I consider changing into clean clothes.  But, the morning chores have to be repeated in the evening, so I go as is and hope I don’t run into anyone who would care about how I look.  As I pull up to the store, I spot two female friends.  Like me they are in their oldest clothes and clonking around in muck boots.  We laugh about our appearance and compare notes about our chores, pointing to various stains and snags as proof of our endeavors.

     My friends and I love beautiful clothes, pristine shoes and matching pocketbooks.  But, those things are mostly reserved for Sunday mornings or special outings.  Whenever I visit my parents in the city, I spend several days in good clothes.  I don’t have to watch where I step and I’m not expected to do anything that would lead to un-removable stains.  I bought those white tennis shoes on one of those trips.  Now they’re not white anymore, but they are still too good to wear in the garden.  I set them on a shelf in my closet.  I’ll wear them to the fair this fall.  They’ll be perfect for looking good in the barn.  Unless it rains.  Then I’ll wear my muck boots and I, and all of my sisters-in-fashion, will splash happily through whatever nature dishes out.  After all, we know how to dress for success.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Coyote Tree

     A friend of mine recently posted a picture on Facebook of a tree out in the middle of a pasture.  There were two coyotes hanging from its branches and a sign referring to it as the hanging tree.  I have seen this tree, but when I saw it there were about ten coyotes hanging there.
     The posted picture created a very small storm of disapproval.  People were appalled at such a vulgar, angry display.  I found myself, strangely, on the other side of the argument.  Don’t get me wrong.  I am not condoning the actions of the farmer involved (whom I know), but I am not condemning them either.  After living on the farm for twenty seven years and participating in the daily struggle to produce a good, marketable crop of lambs or calves I find that my old city attitudes have shifted.
     Like most of my city counterparts, I imagined that all farms consisted of sunny meadows full of frolicking sheep and happy cows.  I loved to eat a good steak or fry up some bacon, but somehow my mind didn’t connect happy farm animals to my plate full of juicy protein.  Happy farm animals lived so that people could enjoy their cuteness and occasionally feed them and pet them. People certainly were not going to eat them.
      It’s not that I didn’t know the source of my burger, it’s just that I chose not to consider it.  Living on a farm changed all of that.  On the farm, I began to face up to the fact that the cute little animals trotting along behind their mamas would one day be sold for food.  I lived on the farm for several years before I would let myself consider this truth too closely.
     Then my boys raised 4-H animals and I watched them grow attached to their four-legged  friends.  And, I watched them mourn when those same friends, after winning some money and ribbons, were loaded onto a stock trailer which pulled off into the sunset, heading towards a feed yard and eventually a butcher’s shop somewhere.
     It was during our third season of raising and selling fair animals that my attitudes began to shift.  In the first years, I cried, too.  But, then it occurred to me that humans have to eat, and we simply cannot do it without something else dying.  Even if we are vegetarians, eating only organically raised produce, a bug will die somewhere as the crop is harvested.  Why are we mourning only the cute furry things?
     In fact, everything must kill something else in order to keep on living.  It is a truth that has been lost as generations of eaters pluck their dinners from the sterile well-lit aisles of a grocery store.  Here on the farm, we don’t have the luxury of ignoring the source of our sustenance and the death that is an inevitable by-product of our eating.
     What does that have to do with coyotes hanging in a tree?  It turns out, everything.  Everything dies.  That’s the truth that we learn living on the farm.  Coyotes are top level predators.  They don’t die very often, unless the one predator above them, man, does the killing.  Coyotes kill indiscriminately and it’s not always because they are hungry.  Any farmer who’s seen a field full of neck-slashed lambs can tell you that coyotes are hit and run killers.  Thus, one farmer who has witnessed too much of this senseless killing and the effect it’s had on his income, chooses to hang the coyotes--symbolically saying, “enough is enough.”
     This farmer is not deranged.  He is angry, and rightfully so.  The coyote tree is simply an expression of that anger and frustration.  Since I’ve lived here, I’ve seen at least ten farmers give up raising sheep because of overwhelming coyote losses.  They’ve tried donkeys, guard dogs and llamas and if they were able to keep their sheep in a small acreage and had a small flock, then they could enjoy some level of protection.  But, most farmers in this county turn their sheep out to pasture in the summer.  Pasture on the sides of mountains, out of sight of the house.  Usually the flock splits up.  A guard animal would have to choose one group, leaving the other group vulnerable.

     If National Geographic came to our mountains and photographed the coyote tree, it would appear in the magazine with a caption that appropriately captured the frustrations of a group of people who are watching their way of life disappear one coyote-killed sheep at a time.  Lambs dying so that we all can eat are one kind of death that we accept on the farm.  Lambs dying in our fields because a coyote went on a killing spree are not.  Sometimes it seems that modern society has forgotten how to distinguish between the two.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Boneyard

     I just returned from visiting my parents in Richmond.  As we walked around the neighborhood, I gawked at the stunning floral displays in every yard.  Richmonders, at least the ones where I grew up, take pride in manicured lawns and dazzling displays of flowers.  The azaleas were in full bloom and every sidewalk was lined with mulched beds of impatiens, roses, pansies, petunias, salvias and sages:  all of it weeded and trimmed to perfection.
     I came home and took a long look at my front yard.  I love flowers just as much as my city friends, but somehow my efforts never translate into the riotous beds of blooms that they’ve achieved.  For one thing, I have walnut trees.  My walnut trees whisper softly in every summer breeze and host orioles and other small birds who wake me with joyful song.  The trees shade my hammock with their gnarly arms and leave only a small trace of leaves for me to rake up in the fall.  They even provide nuts for cakes and pies.  But, walnuts hate to share the lawn.  They nourish grass, but kill almost every flower or tree that is planted beneath their widespread crowns.  And so, I’ve reduced my flower beds to the few plants that can tolerate the walnut’s acidic roots: daylilies, coneflowers, hostas, bleeding hearts and sedums. 
     Then there’s my dog, Luke.  He loves the lawn and flower beds even more than I do.  He loves them because they provide great places to stash all of his bones.  He refuses to limit his collection to the few bones I toss out after a steak or pork dinner.  Luke is a hoarder.  He travels great distances to find and bring back bones of all descriptions.  I cannot fathom where he gets them all.  I recently removed two deer skulls, five assorted bovine bones, a set of sheep ribs, and various legs with hooves and hair still attached.
      If Joe or one of the boys shoots a ground hog out in the front meadows, Luke lets it age for several days and then drags it into the yard.  Usually I find these offerings before they become overwhelmingly offensive, but on occasion if I’m preoccupied as I mow, I have been awakened from my daydreams by a grinding noise and a fan of ripe guts and flesh spewing out from under my feet.  Luke leaps for joy every time I make this mistake, chasing down the body parts and rolling ecstatically in the macerated mess.
     If I have discovered the rotting body and carried it far away from the house, Luke brings it back and buries it in the flower beds for further aging.  Last week, I was planting some hostas when I noticed a  small mound of mulch in the back of the bed.  I reached out with my ungloved hand to smooth it down and raked my fingers through slimy gore.  Luke seemed puzzled by my strong reaction to his gift.  The smell lingered on my hands for several days.
     Then there are the livestock grazing around the house.  Last year, my daylilies were radiant against my white board fence until the lambs reached through and ate the flowers.  The horses love the rosebushes and the cows love anything they can get to.  My sister still chuckles at her memory of being awakened one morning by an unearthly shrieking.  Thinking the house was on fire, she jumped from her bed and caught a flash of blue wailing around the house.  It was me, in my nightie and muck boots, hurtling after five cows and screaming bloody murder.  They had managed to push open a gate and spent the early morning hours destroying my vegetable garden. Even the chickens have found ways into the yard, digging holes beneath the chicken wire I stapled up to thwart them.  They prefer a dust bath shaded by hostas.
     So, while I enjoy the cultivated perfection blooming in the suburbs, I gave up my dreams of garden glory years ago.  Now, I plant daffodils on the hills surrounding my house and enjoy the wild Joe Pye and Iron Weed blooms in the meadow.  I pick daisies from the shale banks and Queen Anne’s Lace to decorate my tables.  
     Joe has decided he would like a flower bed in the yard this year.  He’s made plans for a raised bed full of zinnias and dahlias, delphiniums and larkspur.  I am all for it.  I’m anticipating some early morning entertainment when Joe wakes and discovers the cows dining on dahlias.  I wonder if he’ll stop to put on his boots.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Riding in Trucks

     When my boys were born I realized how different males were from females when they were about two years old and started making engine sounds.  They made engine sounds for everything.  Eating?  Sound of cars pushing food around their plates.  Bathing?  Sound of motor boats as they slid their hands through the suds.  Walking?  Sounds of trucks as they trotted up and down the grocery store aisles.  Sleeping?  No sounds, but that was the only time. 
     I bought a couple of well-seasoned horses when the boys were in school.  I figured we could ride together and bond.  The boys never really grew fond of trotting or cantering, but if Joe brought out the four-wheeler or offered them the chance to steer the truck in the field, they were all over it.  As Justin once said, “Mom, you never know what a horse is going to do, but a four-wheeler won’t dump you off.”
     I beg to differ.   I have been dumped by a lawn mower. A horse wants to stay upright as much as I do, but a lawn mower doesn’t care.  That’s why, when I drive one on the side of a ten degree slope, I lean as far uphill as possible.  This used to keep my mower under control until Joe got me one that cuts off if you lift up off of the seat.  Now, the mower stops running whenever I shift my weight, so I’m forced to white knuckle it around the berm of my garden.
     I once dated a fellow who loved souped up trucks.  He especially loved bucking them across vertical slopes covered in rocks and mud.  He invited me to go along for a ride, once.  While he was chortling gleefully about the mud spinning out from under our tires and the cow-sized rock we’d just  climbed, I was hanging on for dear life saying things like, “Are you sure we should go that way?” and “Look there’s a road. How about we drive on that for a while?”   
     When I married Joe, I never guessed that he would expose me regularly to motor-induced hazards.  For example, feeding hay in the winter involved putting the truck in low range and spinning up across snow that had drifted like ocean swells on the hills.  We’d be going along in a comfortable, horizontal track and he would suddenly point the nose of the truck uphill and start digging a path to the top.  The whine of the truck and his wife would grow louder as he tried to top the rise, and I tried to get him to turn around and just forget about feeding the cows up there.  I have found it comforting to close my eyes when we are exposed to motor-induced dangers.  What I can’t see can’t kill me.
     Then, one day Joe offered me the chance to go along with him and spread some lime.  He made it sound like I would enjoy the beauty of the view from the top of the ridge, but I knew he really just wanted the services of Gate Girl.  However, I did want to see some of the vistas he was always telling me about. I probably would have enjoyed the scenery if I had ever opened my eyes.

     Yesterday, after cleaning out the chicken house, I asked Joe to help me spread some of the litter and manure.  I had put as much in my compost pile as I wanted, and I figured the rest would help grow some grass somewhere.  He agreed and when we got halfway down the driveway, Joe put the truck in low range.  I knew enough by now to look at him suspiciously.  “Where are we going to spread this?” I asked.  In answer, he turned the truck towards the tallest hill.  “It will do the most good here,” he replied.  It’s been raining a lot lately and soon one of my worst nightmares began to take shape.  We hung up in foot thick mud on the side of the ridge.  “Now, we’ll see what this baby can do,” Joe laughed.  “This baby is going to hit you if you don’t let me out,” I replied, but by that time, we had managed to spin our way through the muck to solid ground.  
     We rode up the hill the rest of the way in silence.  My eyes were closed and I was too busy praying for angels to push us up to the top, to engage in frivolous conversation.  After Joe and I forked the last bit of manure off onto the shaley ground, Joe climbed back into the truck.  I walked down.  After years of riding along with him, I knew Joe would bring the truck off of the hill safely.  But, he could concentrate better if I wasn’t screaming all the way down.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Here's a snippet from my YA novel, THE KEY RACE.  I'm entering it in a contest. http://tinyurl.com/pcmopmq.  Wish me luck.

    Race day dawned bright and cool.  Perfect weather for sliding a four-wheeler through tight turns and tripling jumps Mark thought as he unloaded his quad from the trailer.  When it was safely on the ground,  he pulled on his racing gear and went to register. 
    The official at the table handed him a packet of papers.  “Since you’re only sixteen, a parent will have to sign, giving you permission to race,” she said.
    Usually Mr. Dan came with him and acted as his guardian, but today his dad had insisted on coming.  Mark walked back over to the truck.  When he opened the door he saw that the floorboard was already littered with beer cans. 
     “Dad, you know you can get me disqualified if they catch you drinking,” Mark said.
     “Don’t worry son.  No one will know.  See, I brought a soda can, and I’m going to empty my beer into that.  Everyone will think I’m drinking Pepsi.”  He smiled crookedly and said, “I came here to watch my son win, so go get ‘em.”  Then he lifted the can to his mouth and drained it.  “Hey, pour me another beer into this can.  I guess I should have brought my glasses. I keep missing the hole.”
     “You keep missing because you’re too drunk to see,” Mark mumbled, but he poured the beer for his dad and dropped the can into the floorboard.  “I’ll see you after my race,” he said louder.  “I parked you here so you can see the track.  You won’t even have to get out.”
     Mark walked over to the pit area and pulled on his helmet and goggles.  Then he sat on his quad, waiting for his first race.  He turned when he felt a tap on his shoulder.
     Derek was standing just behind him.  “Hey, Drunk’s Son.  Remember our bet.  You win, you get the key back,” said Derek.  “You lose, you do whatever I ask.”
     Mark cringed at Derek’s nickname for him. His last name was Anderson, but Derek had been calling him Drunk’s Son since the day he lost his first motocross race to Mark in the seventh grade. The name stung because of the truth behind it, but he had learned to ignore the taunts.
     “I haven’t forgotten,” he said tightly.  “You’ll be handing me a key at the end of this race.”

     The announcer called for the riders to move to the pre-staging area.  Derek walked over to his quad.  “Prepare to become my slave,” he called over to Mark, gunning his engine before he drove over to his starting gate.  

Tuesday, April 1, 2014


Last night,
children played on
hot sidewalks under the white glow of
lamp- lined streets and
the skyline was brighter than
the moon while
the hum of traffic pointed everything to
buildings full of fluorescent light.

lambs linger along
creek banks under the waxing
moon and
the sky is darker than the bottom
of the pond while
the hum of front-porch talk
pauses to consider a lawn
full of flickering fireflies.

Hay, in brown swaths
outlines the meadows
as we
mow and ted and rake and bale.
Swallows dip and dive
snatching lunch as it
rises from a dusty field.

The ram is on duty.
He follows each ewe
stretching his lips into a tight smile
to taste her ripeness

Mornings are dew dazzled
and in the woods, we crunch
through carpets of leaves.
You say, “Firewood heats you three times.
Once in the cutting,
once in the unloading
and once in the stove.”
Branches scrape and creak
against the sky while one weathered tree
stands limbless and quiet.
You make the first cut and the wailing saw
spits chips.
Then I hear the soft crack
of splinters parting
and the tree comes crashing

Steam rises.
Animals exhale-
a quiet breathing.
Sheep bleat,
cows moan, and
hay shuffles
as kine and swine
and recline
summer’s leftover

A ewe pants and pushes
pants and
straightens legs
arches neck
push  push
one small foot
slips out
then slides back
two feet and
the tip of a white nose
play hide and
a long body,
back legs
at last a
lamb drops to the hay
and mama turns to lick it to

She cannot have her lamb.
it is stuck
somewhere between
cervix and vulva,
a tunnel too narrow
for a lamb with one leg
curled back.
I reach in
and my cold hand is suddenly warm.
I hook the front leg with one finger
behind the knee
and pull,
and like a tender sprout uncurling to the sun
the leg straightens
and the lamb is free
to slide onto the hay.

The old ewe,
is thin under
her wool.
Twenty-five lambs in
twelve years
pulling rich milk from
her swollen teats
have stolen her roundness.
Now, three more
steam on the
frozen ground
where she has dropped them.
The ewe knickers, and nibbles until
they rise, on wobbly legs.
Three lambs search for milk
but the ewe rejects one
pushing it away
each time it approaches
until it gives up
and drops to the ground
Then she turns and takes her twins
to the barn.

These lambs, pushed away by overwhelmed ewes,
or abandoned by ignorant ones,
are always hungry.
They want
to nuzzle skin
while they drink.
They want noses tucked into warm wool
while they tug and pull.
They want ewe bleats, snorts, and stomach rumbles
as they suck.
Instead they get
a green bottle
full of fake milk
to suck from a bright red
rubber nipple.

There are six lambs in the barn
six lambs without mamas
six lambs that jump up expectantly
each time I enter.
And I am tired of mixing milk.
And I am tired of sticky hands and
the sour smell of my coat
where the lambs have sucked it.
And I am tired of pulling boots on and off.
But mostly I am tired of feeling sad about
lambs that lost their mamas
Tell me again why I love to live on a farm.

When I find the lamb out in the field
it is almost gone.
I stick one finger in its mouth.
Ice cold is not a good sign.
I cannot leave it here,
so I wrap it in a feedsack.
This little girl lamb,
with spotted ears,
doesn’t open her eyes,
doesn’t bleat,
doesn’t kick,
is as lifeless as a loaf of bread
as I carry her to the house
where I fill a sink with warm water
and baptize her until
she struggles and her mouth
is warm.
Too weak to suck a bottle, she will have to be tube fed.
I have three choices.
 I will tube her wrong and she will die. 
I won’t tube her and she will die.
I will tube her correctly and she will live.
I feed the tube down her throat,
maybe it’s in her lungs
maybe it’s in her stomach.
Every trick I know for doing it right works,
Then I pour warm milk into the syringe
and pray.
She doesn’t die.
Life comes in slowly.
A moan,
a lifting of her head,
a shake of her ears.
Two hours later
I tube her again.
Then go to bed.
Morning will tell.
As the first light
brightens the sky
I hear her bleat
and go downstairs.
She is standing on shaky legs
and pissing all over my floor.
And I laugh.

The sun licks the last
drops of frost
from the front windshield
as I bend
to retrieve a loose bolt
from the floorboard and
find myself caught
by the strong arm
of the gearshift.
I twist around
legs flung wide
like a bawdy girl,
and we
laugh ourselves breathless
as you
me from
the truck’s
steely embrace

After a winter of snow
and cold,
after digging endless pathways,
after thousands of bottles of milk
after ashes inside and cats inside and mud inside,
there is some green
and the peepers are singing songs
about spring.

The lambs
leap and kick
they buck and duck,
Who is strongest?
Who is fastest?
Who can leap the highest?
One lamb stands alone
hunched against the small breeze.
Abandoned at birth, it is always hungry
for milk and attention.

The lambs play
while their wooly mamas
crop grass
      three quick steps
a snatch,
a muffled bleat,
and a lamb
leaves the flock
while its mama
wanders away
in search of

The sun is shining
on fields full of lambs
and the lamb check this year will be good
if the lambs survive
the coyotes
the bears
the dogs
and the worms .
The sun is shining on fields full of lambs
and the lamb check this year will be good
the lambs survive
all of that
and die anyway.
Anyone who raises sheep knows
a lamb is born looking
for a way to die.

We sit on the tailgate
in the sun.
There is nothing to do today.
No lambs to feed.
No hay to scatter.
No buckets to fill and carry.
There is nothing to do today.
So we sit in the sun
and watch the lambs leap and the sheep eat
and the grass grow
which reminds us
there will be something to do

Chops and roasts
rosy red in the case
don’t tell.
They don’t tell about
the night we spent lying in shit
as we pulled the lamb.
They don’t tell about the lamb that lived
one day and then died in my arms.
They don’t tell that lambs love to dance under a warm spring sun.
or about four lambs curled together against the cold.
Meat wrapped in cellophane
lies about the getting.
Leads to forgetting
that one life is always
the gift of
another life
followed by death,
followed by life.
On the farm
on our table
we remember and are humbled
by the truth.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Orphan Shed

     There’s another orphan calf out in the shed.  Last night, Joe came in after feeding the cows and announced that he had an extra grey calf and couldn't figure out which cow it belonged to.  Only one cow had recently calved, but that was several days ago and now she was keeping vigilant watch over a little black baby.  While Joe spooled hay off the back of the tractor, this little grey calf ran up and down the line of cows as they followed him, bawling for a meal, but no mama claimed him.
     We fixed up a bottle of milk, and Joe took it out.  The calf sucked down the whole half gallon.  Apparently the mama cow with the black calf gave birth to twins, let them both nurse for a couple of days, and then decided two was too many so she abandoned one.  This can happen.  It makes me sad to think of a mama choosing one offspring over another, but I guess in the wild it makes sense for survival of the species.
     This morning we wake to temperatures in the low teens and blowing snow.  We both think immediately of the hungry grey calf.  “Maybe we better go out and see if he’s been claimed,” Joe says pulling on his coveralls.  “If he hasn't, then you’ll need to ride along with me.  We’ll catch him and bring him in.”
     It’s the kind of day that makes me wish I didn't have to go out.  The wind bites my nose and the sleet stings my cheeks as I pull the gate open for Joe.  There is no sign of our cows so we drive the quarter mile length of the field peering through the snowy air.  It will be hard to spot a grey calf in this weather.  Finally we see the herd of cows huddled on the lee side of a rock pile next to the river.  Icicles dangle from their sides and their black backs are completely frosted in white.  Hopefully the calf is in among them. 
     We both hop out of the truck and ease around the cows.  No sign of the calf.  Finally Joe spots him curled on top of a rock pile.  He is a big ball of grey fur and white snow and he blends in with the rocks.  He doesn't run very far before turning and letting Joe catch him.  He must remember the milk.
     We pull him into the truck and I ride back down the field with the calf shivering at my feet.  We turn off the heater because that coat of ice actually protects him from heat loss. If we melt it, he will be wet and chilled.  I stick my fingers in his mouth.  It’s warm, which is a great sign.
     When we get to the shed the other orphan calf butts me as we lead the little grey calf in.  He has had his morning grain, but because he was only recently weaned he believes that if he butts me hard enough milk will appear.  Luke, our dog who loves all living things, wiggles through the door and begins licking the new calf.  The calves and dog bow and jump a little in pretend play and I’m glad to see it.  There's a lot of life in this new calf.  Joe returns and offers the newest orphan a full bottle.  I offer my fingers to the black calf so he’ll stop nosing in for a share and he sucks contentedly on them long enough for the grey calf to finish the bottle. Then we leave the two calves to get acquainted.  I think our black orphan is happy to finally have a companion. 

     Raising bottle calves is difficult for me.  These are bulls, soon to become steers.  I have learned to resist their big black eyes and long eyelashes.  For one thing, they will soon be big enough to do some real damage to me if they continue to butt me for milk.  And, one day they will be sold for slaughter.  That’s the hard truth of this job.  They will have great, happy lives, but they are not pets.  When they are young and cute, sometimes that’s hard to remember.