Category Archives: Meanwhile back at the ranch…

Inside my head, our five acres on the Columbia River is a place of of fruitfulness, peace and beauty. A garden brimming with vegetables, chickens contentedly scratching after bugs, the warm hum of a beehive, the contented munching of cattle and other beasts – and all of it without the use of any toxic chemicals. And some of this we have – but the reality also includes weeds, sweat and tears.

Kill day

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We usually do it in late fall, after the flies are gone but before we start feeding hay.  It felt weird to do it on Labor Day, wrong to rob them of the last weeks of summer. But at a time of year when our pasture should be lush it is looking tired. That’s why I scheduled kill day early – supposedly next week Monday, but Shane the kill guy and I got our wires crossed and he came today.

Today we killed the first cattle that we’d raised from birth on this land. I know, gruesome … but it kinda feels like a milestone.

We used to buy steers from auction and from private sellers, buying in spring and pasturing them until fall of the following year. But I didn’t like them being taken from their mothers so young, and also we kept buying duds – not every time, of course, but often enough a steer failed to grow as expected, which meant less income from meat, which meant less money for hay through the following winter. So I started niggling at the Hubbit about making our own baby beefs, and he rolled his eyes in that resigned sort of way and bought our first heifer.

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Tshepo became more friendly after she learned about treats.

Her previous owner told us she used to keep her on a halter, tied up to graze in different areas of the yard, so we thought she’d be easy. We were wrong. She turned out to be a bloody-minded baggage, who took one look at our nice big pastures – bigger than a backyard, anyway – before she stuck her tail in the air and refused to have anything to do with us. Undaunted, we added another cow and her heifer. I named them Tumelo, Tshepo and Lerato – which are Sepedi words meaning Faith, Hope and Love.

In case you’re wondering, I’m not a sentimental idiot. I don’t name the steers. They are food, and you don’t name food. The first steers we brought home we named Mac and Arby, but that was a joke. Also, naming them after hamburger chains was the Hubbit’s sweetly subtle way of reminding me that they were beef, not pets. He seemed to find it necessary to make a point of this. I’m not sure why … Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I couldn’t bear the way my nannies looked at me after we murdered their kids, and eventually insisted we deliver the whole lot of them to a goat rescue 300 miles away. But that was then, and goats are smarter than steers. In any case, I don’t name the meat.

Of course some of them have names when they arrive. When that happens, I have to respect it. Like the little guy who liked to stay quietly by himself in a corner of the field – obviously he was Ferdinand; I didn’t just name him after some book character. And the goofy one with a sickle moon on his forehead was Moonboy, as clearly as if he’d been wearing a name tag.

Okay, there were also last year’s calves, Kitty and Obie – but Kitty was the first calf to be actually born here, so obviously she had to have a name by way of acknowledging the event, and the Hubbit named Obie; I had nothing to do with that. And … okay, fine, this spring’s steers are named Pi and Eezee, but there are good reasons for that.

Usually I don’t name the meat.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let me get back to telling you about today. It started fairly leisurely. I yawned and stretched and thought about getting out of bed, and at about 7.15 I noticed that Shane had left me a voice mail yesterday evening, to say he’d be here between 7.00 and 7.30AM. It sounded like the kind of message he always leaves the day before he comes … not the week before.

I called him. “Shane?” I said.

“I’m sorry, I’m running late, I’m on my way!” He sounded stressed. As for me, I went straight from “Ho hum tra-la-la” to “Fuckadoodledoo!” and rushed off in search of the Hubbit.

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Lerato, expressing an opinion.

Here’s the thing: we have a routine – more of a ritual, really – for kill day. A few days ahead of time we split our small herd. The doomed go into one pasture and get special treats, not because they need to put on weight but … just because. Meanwhile, the others get used to being without them. On kill day, before Shane arrives, the Hubbit puts the horses into their stalls, while I stay in bed with a pillow over my face and one ear exposed, tensely listening for rifle shots. After a while I phone the Hubbit and he tells me everything’s okay, it all went according to plan, yes they are dead, no they didn’t suffer, yes the others are fine. Then I can get up and get on with the day. But I wait until they no longer have faces before I go outside to thank Shane personally, and admire the marbling in the meat. (I like Shane. He never has to shoot twice.)

Well, there was no time for any rituals today. There wasn’t even any time for me to get used to the fact that I’d condemned my favorite cow to the freezer. There definitely wasn’t time to feed her treats. That made a crappy situation even crappier. Sometimes I hate being a grownup!

For a while the Hubbit had been quietly insisting that three cows plus their progeny plus two horses was too much for our pasture to carry, and I’d been loudly declaiming, “But we can’t live without Hope!” (Tshepo, aka Hope, was the smallest cow, so least likely to produce a large calf and most likely to get into trouble if trying to birth a large calf.) Well, last week I accepted that he was right, which is something that happens more often than he likes to admit (me accepting, I mean; the silly fellow thinks he’s always right, hahaha). But it made me sad because I’d become fond of her, and she was supposed to grow old with us. Her independence, her bossy way of marching over to see what I wanted if I went into the pasture, her enthusiasm for treats … they reminded me of me.

Well, anyway … At about 7.30, Shane’s white truck rumbled down the dirt road and through our gate. All the cattle in our neighbors’ pastures clustered in groups behind their fences and watched. Our girls and their two little boys were relaxing together at the far end of their pasture, but they got up and thundered alongside the fence, keeping pace with the truck. I don’t know why they do that. I’ll swear they know what he’s there for, but they act like it’s a holiday every time.

I was already up; it was too late to stay in bed so I hid behind my computer. Through the window I watched the horses galloping up and down their pasture, snorting and stamping, their tails like banners. After a while,  I went outside to say hi to Shane. The carcasses, clothed only in thick jackets of fat, looked enormous. The heads, skinned and staring blindly, lay in a heap to one side. The Hubbit and his friend Cool Dude were busy sorting various inside bits according to whether they were for human or canine consumption. Between the dogs and various friends, very little is wasted.

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Men at work. I’m glad I get to hide away!

After Shane was done and had left to deliver the beefs to the butcher, Cool Dude brought a wheelbarrow heaped with innards up to the workshop. It always startles me how hot meat is even several hours after killing. We loaded it into big plastic bags and put it inside a chest freezer to cool, because warm meat is rubbery, making it difficult to cut and also disgusting. Later the Hubbit backed his truck up to the shop door, and while he and CD cut the almost-chilled meat into manageable lumps, I slapped away swarms of flies and stuffed it into Ziploc bags, which went into the dog meat freezer.

So that was my Labor Day, and I know it probably sounds completely horrible to you, but I liked it. Not the killing, and not the betrayal – I don’t really think cows feel betrayed, but I feel as though I betray them. The price of their contented existence is their lives, which is better than most farm animals get, but undeniably a one-sided deal. At the same time, eliminating anthropomorphism from the equation, I like that, having chosen to eat meat, I can also choose to ensure that the creatures who provide it experience lush pasture and sunshine, companionship, peace … and, at the end, the grace of a single bullet while grass is still sweet on their tongue.

How about you? Do you eat meat? Do you care what kind of life it lived before it became meat? Would you eat it if you knew its name?

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Fun on the farm

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I really wish I didn’t suck so much at blogging. I’m constantly noticing, even photographing, things I mean to tell you about, and then I forget or get distracted and don’t write them down. Meanwhile I’ve reached that life stage where you start reconnecting with your old (holy cow, some of them are ooooold) friends from school and university years, and they say, “So what are you doing these days?” and I want to say, “Oh, too much to squeeze into one Facebook comment – but go take a look at my blog!” So this post is for old friends.

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Vos takes a bow on my hugel-mound

Right now it’s about noon on a pleasant summer day – not too hot, a bit windy. Sitting at my computer I can look through my window and see, in the distance, the Columbia River with its fringe of trees … closer in our north pasture with cows lazing about on the green … and, closer still, an expanse of dirt that will, when we get around to planting it, be lawn, because the Hubbit doesn’t share my desire for wild grasses and other native plants and I’m tired of arguing about it. In any case, to be honest, when it comes to gardening I’m better at conceptualizing than doing. Meanwhile, we have a flat expanse of dirt that the horses visit about once a day because they’ve decided it’s the best place to roll. In the middle of the flatness is a mound – dirt piled on compost piled on logs – because I read about hugelkultur and wanted to try it. Vos loves rolling up against this mound, the better to scratch his back, and he really doesn’t care if it gets flat and misshapen in the process.

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I’m quite sure digging the pond had nothing at all to do with a boyish desire to play with a large machine…

I can also see what we call the pond area. When we bought this property the Hubbit took into his head that he wanted a pond. A big pond. I mean, he was talking a quarter acre, and although he didn’t quite manage that he did his best. He spent an entire day digging dirt out of the pond and dumping it in a large pile in the middle of what is now the south pasture, and then we got involved in a whole lot of other things, and there the hole in the ground and its matching heap still sit, waiting for inspiration to strike, energy to surge, and pennies to rain down from heaven. One day we will have a swimming hole, and also a raised up picnic spot. For now, the cattle mosey up to the pond area to get water, hay and attention, and it’s where we keep them in winter.

We have seven cattle at the moment. The three cows are Tumelo (Faith), Tshepo (Hope) and Lerato (Love, who is also Tumelo’s mother). Last year Tshepo and Lerato gave us two heifers, Obie and Kitty-Kat. This year we were expecting three calves, since Tumelo was old enough to be bred, and I was all excited to blog about it, but thought I’d wait until the third one came because I just knew that, sooner or later, I’d get to be up to my armpit in a cow’s vagina – which is exactly the sort of experience one wants to blog about – and I didn’t want to jump the gun.

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Our young helper Puck, with Pi and Lerato. Pi is maybe 10 minutes old here, and weighs around 100 lbs.

Well, first Lerato gave us Pi (born March 14, aka Pi Day), and he was huge. It took two of us to pull him out of her, and she’s a big cow. So I was worried sick for the following couple weeks, waiting for Tumelo and Tshepo. It was Tumelo’s first and Tshepo is a small cow, so there was real potential for trouble. Every night we’d go out several times to check on them – and this was in March, in Washington, so we were sliding and crunching through ice and snow. One evening I went out and nothing seemed to be happening, and quite by accident my flashlight illuminated a small black creature who had arrived with no fuss at all. So that was Tumelo’s rent paid; I named her calf Eezee. Two down, Tshepo still to go. Every day I fed her treats to win her trust, so that if she had difficulties she’d let me get close enough to help her. Day after day, her belly got bigger and bigger. And every day nothing happened. Nothing at all. Eventually we realized she was just fat. The bull had stayed only three weeks instead of the usual four – we let him go early because he was bored with so few cows and kept breaking out of their pasture – so evidently he’d missed her Magic Moment.

I was going to tell you more, about chickens and plowing and other fun farmy stuff – but that will have to wait. There is a Smell. On a farm it is not unusual for things to smell, but this is different. This is a Smell riding a Harley. It rumbles. It is going places.

Aaand … here comes the Hubbit to tell me about it.

So apparently the pump in our septic tank has died, and he is going to fix it, which will involve crouching over the open drain with his head inside … and this Smell isn’t merely riding a Harley; it’s wearing a Hell’s Angel jacket and carrying a ball peen hammer. Therefore I have to be there. To fish him out, if he falls in.

This is what happens when you marry Senior MacGyver and then go live on a farm. He can still fix pretty damn near anything, but his knees don’t bend as well as they used to, and sometimes he gets a little unsteady. It’s just as well I still think he’s cute.

 

So what are you doing these days? Have you ever been tempted to give up city life and go live on a farm? If your significant other fell into a septic tank, would you pull them out?

 

The horse in my mud room

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This morning the Hubbit woke me with the news that Pal, my old horse, had pooped all over the clothes dryer. “Oh, that’s wonderful!” I exclaimed, and rushed to put in my contact lenses so I could see for myself.

A little later he (Pal, not the Hubbit) let rip with another explosion of liquid so gloriously voluminous that I think even Donald Trump would have admired it. That one hit the wall. Shortly after that, he started squealing for his buddy Vos, so I piled soft throws onto his body, added a horse blanket, and let him out into the snowy wastes of our backyard. He immediately headed to the corral, where he and Vos had a touching reunion. (Vos is also old – they’re both somewhere north of 25 years – but he didn’t succumb to hypothermia, which is why he got to spend last night in his stall as per normal.)

So I called the vet again to bring him up to speed, and we agreed that he didn’t need to come see it for himself, and then I told the Hubbit that it was no longer urgent, or even necessary, to clear the driveway, but by then he was bundled up and sufficiently pissed off with the weather that he didn’t care what I had to say. He sent the boys off down the driveway with shovels, and carried on trying to get his tractor to start – not an easy task in the kind of cold we’re experiencing.

I came back inside and fed the dogs. (They’re back on a meat diet, to their great, if flatulent, joy. Today they had lungs that were floating around two feet above our pasture just a few weeks ago. Yum!) Then I contemplated the mud room. I thought of taking a picture to share with you, but decided even the Hubbit’s fancy Canon Rebel T3 wouldn’t be able to do it justice, and anyway some sights are better left to the imagination. Instead, here is a snapshot the Hubbit took with his phone last night, after Pal warmed up enough to start showing an interest in things, but before he recovered enough to explode.

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For alternative views of the mud room without a horse in it, go here.

After pondering the mud room for a while, and wincing at the kitchenly chaos next door, and contemplating the muddy footprints and furballs all over the floor in the rest of the house, and musing upon the various increasingly urgent projects piled up next to my computer, I decided that the only rational thing to do was to write my first blog post of the year.

I know it’s been a long time. Shit has been happening, and I’ve been thinking about Stuff, and also working on a new novel series, and I got sucked back into Facebook, and frankly I’d got to wondering whether there was any point in continuing with this blog. I mean, what exactly am I trying to do here? I have lots of thoughts about all sorts of things, but I’ve come to realize that most of them have already been articulated – usually more coherently – by other people. Do I really want to add to the noise in the world? Of course, most of my bloggish writing is random bits and pieces about my life, and I’d been thinking that’s not so special – why would anyone want to read about the daily musings, amusings and doings of some bint on a not-quite-farm just outside Smalltown USA?

This morning I realized that I may be the only person in the world who is happy that a horse shat on her clothes dryer. That has to count for something. So … no promises regarding content or regularity, but I’m back. Happy new year, y’all! It’s shaping up to be interesting!

 

That nip in the air

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I’ve been feeling that jittery itch, that scratching between my shoulder blades and nipping at my nose. Cold weather is on its way. Rain, freeze, maybe snow, definitely slush, all coming. Wind that snatches your breath before you can inhale, yanks your foot before you can step. It makes the horses knock-you-down crazy.

One minute it was August. The next, it’s September – supposed to be a mellow month, but today we woke to unexpected and heavy rain. I’ve spent much of the day fidgeting, making lists. I’m suddenly aware that time is running out, and there is much to do before winter. If we fail to do it, we’ll stumble into spring, crash into summer before we’re ready, and lose yet another year of production, growth and beauty.

We’ve done that too often. This has been a painful year of loss and disruption … Last year was eaten by ill-health  … The year before it was something else; recovery from burnout, I think … Enough.

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Some good things happened this summer. Like, our swallows came back, for the fourth year in a row, and raised two families of five babies each all crammed into their tiny nest. It’s so much fun when the whole flock of them flies around the house, snatching flies out of the air and gobbling them down.

We’ve entrusted our lives to this place – in this small piece of land in the crook of the Columbia River. What we have here we made out of an empty and untidy field, and wishes and dreams. But then we ran aground – we poured ourselves into rescuing dogs (and sometimes people) and the work gulped us right down, along with our wishes and dreams, and the strength of our bodies and determination of our minds.

At the beginning of this year, I named it my Year of Reclamation. (I told you that already, didn’t I?) And quite apart from all the sad and hurtful things that have happened this year, it’s been a year of taking stock. Considering options. Choosing priorities. Making lists.

Now it’s September, and I’m fidgety with the need to Get Things Done, and frustrated by the slow, painful inefficiency of my unwieldy body.

Oh well. I guess that makes my body, yet again, the first priority. After a year of try-fail-try-again I have quit trying to ease gracefully into health and wellness via intelligent eating, and am currently ramming myself into ketosis by means of a three-day fat fast. Oh my word, it’s horrid! Start the day with a gigantic strong bulletproof coffee, listen to my heart race until lunchtime, chow down on cream cheese and just a little salami, remember remember remember to drink plenty water, nibble a few macadamia nuts in the evening. Think about food all damn day. Huddle under a blanket feeling cold and shitty and try to distract self with a book.

That was yesterday and most of today … and then there was this … tremor. My synapses blinked and took a peek at the world. I took a pee, and … yep, that unmistakable ketone smell. (TMI, I know, but it made me so dang happy!) My toes wiggled and demanded a walk, so I took a couple of the lunatics out into a pasture and threw a ball until they lost it.

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Sweet summer days down at the river. Argos has finally learned to swim!

And then I came back inside and … I feel so good! I’m making lists!

Things to do before winter:

  • Finish building the raised beds in the veggie garden, fill them up with horse/cow/chicken poop and weeds and some old tree branches and yes, of course, also some dirt. Snuggle them under a good, thick layer of straw. Yank the weeds out of the existing beds, repair as needed, and give them a nice straw duvet as well.
  • Prune the grape vines and the apricot/plum/nectarine/pear trees – but only after the pears are done. The pear tree is inside the chicken run, and every evening when I put the chickens away I pick up the windfalls they haven’t eaten and throw them over the fence for the horses. Vos eats with calm authority, but Pal gobbles and foams pear-drool in his effort to get his before Vos takes it.
  • Transplant the asparagus, and fill the old asparagus bed up with berry bushes.
  • Clean the hen house and give the girls a nice deep bed of fresh hay.
  • Pick up and burn the pile of trash wood that the Hubbit insisted on keeping “because it’s useful” – only now it isn’t, it’s just nasty, and – happy day – he agrees it’s time to let it go.
  • Clear and plow and seed the front yard. Let there be grass!
  • Plow and seed the six or so acre field our neighbor has offered us for winter pasture. I wish we’d managed to do that earlier in the year – we’d have grass there now and would be able to use it in January. Well, no matter. If we do it now, we’ll be able to use it for a little while in summer, and give our pasture a rest.
  • Put up hot wire to subdivide the north pasture.
  • Protect what’s left of the weeping birch from the cattle.
  • Repair the divider the bull broke in the horse stalls.
  • Cattle-proof the fence around the pond-to-be.

So that’s my list. Most of it I can do alone. Some requires the Hubbit’s help. But less all the time! Yesterday, for instance, he taught me to drive the tractor, thinking to set himself free from plowing. It was so much fun … until I killed it. I have no idea what I did, but I’m sure he’ll figure it out. Poor guy! I’m lucky he’s so forbearing.

Do you get antsy when the seasons change? What’s big on your to-do list right now?

 

 

An unexpected guest

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There are a few pieces of railroad tie, rocks, a straw bale, and a couple other random odds and ends out in the chicken run, and sometimes when I go out there I roll one over. The chickens are immediately alert, waiting, their eyes on me. If I call “Kip kip keee-ipp!” they come running, because they know I’ve uncovered a juicy hoard of bugs.

This evening I rolled over a rock and, sure enough, bugs. So while they were pecking and scratching there, I rolled over a piece of railroad tie and – YIKES!! – I found this!

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Gopher snake

I dropped a small pebble on him to see if he would rattle, but he didn’t, so I just enjoyed him for a bit before the chickens came to see what I’d found. (Yeah, I like snakes – I told you that before!) While I was chasing them off, he disappeared under the straw bale. I don’t think we have gophers in the chicken run, but we definitely have mice. I’m hoping he’s willing to be flexible!

Hey, Steph – isn’t he cool?!?