Mother Goose, Revisited

She is now over seventeen years old. But, the old gray goose is still a fixture on our farm. Here is one from the archives.

She is quite the sight, a twelve-year-old and twenty-pound Pomeranian as Mother Goose to fifteen Saxony ducklings. She is in her element as guardian, head up searching for predators and effectively sending off all challengers.

She is the last of her breed on our farm. The last of what was once a large flock of forty of this impressive, handsome and tasty bird. Even in a large flock she stood out as a big girl. The first season we had her we assumed she was a gander from temperament and bearing. Even when she crowded onto a nest and pushed out other geese we assumed “he” was just helping out, a willing domestic partner, if you will.

When she stayed on the nest and hatched out a dozen or so goslings we realized our error. Her partner, they mate for life, was a beautiful gander and fierce protector of her, the goslings and the farm.

Nothing is more impressive than seeing twenty breeding pairs of geese turn in unison as an act of protecting their babies and charge the UPS man. Flapping wings, honking at decibels so loud it must be heard to be believed, they are an intimidating presence. The UPS man agreed. Agreed that he would remain in the truck and we would come to him if we wanted our package. He was only the latest in a long line of visitors so convinced.

As the years have progressed we gradually sold or ate our remaining flock of Pomeranians (an old German breed). For the last six years only the lone pair remained; the big girl and her man. They had become pets, lawn ornaments, a comfortable and expected presence around the barnyard.

Each January for the past twelve years she laid a clutch of eggs. And as the years progressed and fertility decreased the number of eggs and the viability of the hatch decreased.

Finally, two years ago, the gander disappeared after confronting coyotes invading the farm. I found his remains in the woods a month later. She spent the next few months forlornly honking for her mate. It is not an act of anthropomorphising to say that she was mourning her loss. It was heartbreaking to watch.

For the past two seasons she has continued to lay eggs, not fertile of course, in the barn. We let her set for as long as she will. Usually the dogs will steal the eggs from her so that the last couple of weeks she is sitting on nothing. But she doggedly persists in this act of maternity.

This year during what would have been her last week before a normal hatch we bought ducklings from a nearby farm. Cindy and our farm guest Hannah installed the ducklings in the brooder about twenty feet away from the goose on her nest. The next morning the goose had abandoned her nest and had taken residence in front of the brooder. What a miracle it must have seemed after several fruitless years to wake up and find all of her babies hatched and in a nearby pen!

She did not leave the side of the pen for three weeks. Hissing and flapping her wings at any who came near. Sitting inside one evening a month back we heard her unleashing some Holy Hell out at the brooder. Cindy went out to check and returned moments later to let me know a large black-rat snake was eating a duckling. The goose was frantically trying to get to the snake through the wire of the pen. I dispatched the snake with my 410 and the girl and the flock settled down, albeit a bit deafened.

Cindy turned the ducklings out after three weeks. Since that day the goose never leaves their side, maternally herding them together or away from danger. She is quite the sight with her big frame and all the smaller ducks clustered around her moving across the barnyard or pasture; a mother again, after all these years.

A Prayer to Ella

The gray days of February have long since settled in over our valley. An endless mist, drizzle, and downpour greets my every foray to the barn. High blue winter skies are but a fevered dream seen in quick glimpses before being chased away by the cloud lords of the lower realms.

The drip from the trees, buildings, machinery, and tools is as the sound of the crypt: it brings the promise of eternal dampness into these bones. The animals cry out for relief, a dry patch, a kind word from the grumpy caretaker. Yet their squeals and bleats strike no chord before my sodden heart. I wring it out, reducing its size by three, and feel nothing but an urge to get back inside.

There, I hang up my coat. It whispers, “I’ll clothe you again in dampness when you are ready.” Cup of tea in hand, I retreat to my study and listen as the drip outside my window holds a conversation with the power lines a quarter-mile distant. It’s an exchange of semaphore sizzles, dashes, and drops spoken in a rural dialect I don’t understand, except to know by the laughter that either I am the subject of much mockery and mirth or, worse, that they are ignorant of my existence.

Outside these walls the sheep have grown quiet in damp defeat, while the cocks shuffle on their roosts and squabble over sleeping partners. The sun has long since dropped below the western horizon, exhausted from a pointless daylong contest with the clouds.

The hour is late and I add a splash of Islay to my tea. Picking out a book from the stack, I lean back into my easy chair and resolve to wait out the gray overlords. I offer up a silent toast, then a prayer for their banishment to the scat goddess Ella:

Blue skies
Smiling at me
Nothing but blue skies
Do I see …

Never saw the sun shining so bright
Never saw things going so right
Noticing the days hurrying by
When you’re in love, my how they fly …

Blue skies …


Reading this weekend: Berg’s biography of Maxwell Perkins.

Mud Season

The front wheels are angled perfectly for the eight-foot gate opening between the barn and the corral. A round bale of hay dangles from the front spear. In spring, summer, and fall, the tractor turns smartly, with clearance on both sides. But this is not spring, summer, or fall. The tractor takes on a mind of its own and begins sliding off to the left, back tires pushing forward, front tires mired lug-nut deep in mud, until, rudderless in the late winter slurry, it skids to a halt against the gate post.

Mud season in East Tennessee is well underway. The weather is never quite warm enough to dry out the ground; the green grass is still a month away. Every surface stays in a stalled-out state between slop and frozen. Margery Fish, in her book “We Made a Garden,” says if you want to know what the world looked like after the great deluge, visit a barnyard in winter. We say, if you want to visit our farm, wait until spring. Sad sheep paths and nasty pig sties look to those unlearned in the ways of the farm to be the product of gross inattention. Hell, they look the same to me, and I know better.

Each slippery step I take leaves a rut in its wake, the dead grass sloughing off like a snakeskin with my passing boot. It’s as if the world has taken a giant gulp and held its breath until its skin has become soft and spongy.

The sow peers out of her shelter when I approach, her bulk blocking her piglets from the great outdoors: “Not today, kids, you’ll just track it all back inside.” The hens scouring the barnyard take great shuddering leaps to clear the mire and get to higher ground and fresh bugs. Eggs collected in the season of mud are all imprinted with spidery claw prints.

Every year ’tis the same complaint. Then, every year the mid-March miracle occurs. All in a matter of a week, two at the most, emerald hairs of grass explode from below. The sponge squeezes and even the ruts from the tractor fill in, seemingly overnight. The trees on the opposite ridge wear their first hint of green, and the rose-purple redbuds begin to work their understory magic in the deep woods. Demeter comes out of her funk as her daughter returns.

But for now, early spring growth is just a memory and a promise. The tractor tires still mutiny against my commands. They go left when I order right. The mud offers no purchase to my boots. The sheep reproach me with yellow eyes as they leave the barn single file on a high path out of the mire.

I back up and try for the gate again, and the rain begins to fall, merging sky with muck.

The Butcher’s Bill

The obligatory cute lamb picture

This mid-winter morning, the mercury hovers around 10, the ground is lightly covered with brittle snow, and, as the prospect of another week in the deep freeze settles into my chilled bones, my thoughts are dark. I spent most of yesterday avoiding outdoor projects on the farm. Time that could have been employed constructively was devoted instead to a post comparing our cushy fossil-fueled lives to a 19th century slaveholder economy. Eventually I shelved it. “Too bleak,” Cindy said. “I want to hear about the lambs.”

Heck, I too would rather hear about lambs than read yet another rant about our fatal addiction to consumption. Which, I admit, is just one more pile of sand in which I bury my head. My competing impulses create a quandary. When a young person talks to me about his dreams for a good life, my first instinct is to interrupt, to tell him the planet has determined that our good life is no longer viable, dreams or not. Instead, I tell him about lambs. The promise of birth and death and birth again. I believe in both narratives, and I don’t want to burst his bubble, so I tell only the one story.

Which is why I love farming. It is a great place for a short-term optimist/long-term pessimist like myself. The old joke about the farmer who won a million bucks perfectly encapsulates my outlook: “So what are you going to do with that million dollars?” “I guess I’ll keep farming until it runs out.” Well, I too will keep on farming, enjoying and embracing it for however long it lasts, even as I remain convinced that the planet is preparing to reboot. If I could just find my pipe and supply of hope-ium seed, then just maybe I could help extend that optimistic vision out another generation.

My own inclination for a favorable construct, meanwhile, continues to be fed by lots of new pigs, a new pregnant sow, baby lambs hitting the ground daily, an ongoing diet of learning new skills, dreams of a better garden, and good friends in the community. Two of the latter stopped by last night with a gift one of them had worked on for the better part of a year. A beautiful rustic bench adorned with a seat back that spelled out “Winged Elm,” it was handmade of wood from both theirs and our farm. We invited them in to share some homemade chicken and dumplings. The chicken itself was a gift from two young farmers in exchange for the use of our chicken plucker. So, despair not, gentle reader, for your scribe. I’ll always enjoy a convivial evening and the miracles of everyday life.

Well, the sun isn’t up, but in this frigid dawn light I see the ram lambs. They are gathered at the hay barn, trying to magic their feed down onto their dining room table. I must leave you — thinking of cute lambs, not about the butcher’s bill that inevitably comes due.


Reading this weekend: Lanterns On The Levee: recollections of a Planter’s son, by William Alexander Percy. A beautifully written memoir of the Mississippi Delta, that also manages to be both offensively racist and full of class snobbery. 


Free Advice, Enjoy the Methodical       

One challenge I give myself each year, dutifully written down in my new year’s resolutions, is to enjoy the methodical; those tasks we hurry through or avoid altogether, simply to get to the free time that we then squander. Whether it is washing dishes, shoveling out a stall, splitting or stacking wood, there is a fulfillment to be found in a slow physical and repetitive work. But, the act of slowing down is at odds with the demands of our frenetic modern world. Which, in its turn, spawns a desperate populace of chasers after an elusive serenity, roaming our streets.

An afternoon spent with a manure pile might just provide the corrective spiritual focus. Hold that pitchfork and who knows where the thought currents might take one.

“Like” vs. Writing Letters

Here is a confession, I no longer write letters. For most of my adult life I typed out letters, put them in an envelope, and sent them off. Then, over the past fifteen years, I completely embraced the email format. Although I don’t get the satisfaction of finding the reply letter in the physical mailbox, the essential pleasures are still observed; me and a friend taking time to share thoughts and experiences.

But, by entering the world of social media three years ago, most of that fell away. I now have more interactions but less contact. It is analogous to walking down a busy street and saying hello to friends and nodding at acquaintances, hearing arguments and avoiding fights, without engaging in a proper discussion.

I’d like to get off that busy street. Perhaps turn off into that leafy park, sit on a bench and continue/begin that longer conversation with a friend.

Last One to Read, Turn Out the Lights

I’ve alluded to my off the farm job in the past. A job that occasions some flying. Over the past twenty years I’ve observed the gradual darkening of the planes. Years ago, most passengers, upon sitting down, pulled out newspapers, magazines and books. They kept the window shade up. Now, the first thing passengers do is close the shade. And, then the next two hours are spent sitting in the dark (except for a few lone lights marking the outposts of those who still read), playing video games and watching movies. This seems a sad surrender.

This Blog

This blog is an act of engagement, my effort to keep the lights on. You may “like it” and I will appreciate that acknowledgement. But, taking the time to sit on this bench and share a written reply is also welcome.


Reading this weekend: the short stories of Ernie Hemingway.

2017: Ten Reasons I’m Thankful This Thanksgiving Day

A recent gathering of the men in our family

  1. A cured ham hangs in reserve under the stairs.
  2. A 32-pound home-grown turkey, fresh from the oven, with veggies from our hoop-house and sides from our guests, will provide dinner at 4 for family and friends.
  3. The view from the porch is of a wooded hill, rolling pastures, orchards, gardens, and beehives.
  4. The haybarn, unlike last year in the drought, is stacked to the rafters with our hay.
  5. The grass is still green in late November, and the ponds are full.
  6. On this cold morning, I smell wood smoke on the breeze.
  7. And, I’m reminded of other cold mornings, fishing for redfish in the coastal bayous with my dad, smoke drifting across the water from the fish camps.
  8. My dad is still with us at age 90, as is my mother’s sister at 97.
  9. All the men of the family had a chance to get together this fall for fellowship.
  10. My partner on this farm is my partner in life.


During a recent cold snap, while out in the garden harvesting the last peppers and tomatoes, I spotted Robbie’s nametag on a fence post. I had placed it there exactly five years ago this weekend. Here is a post from the archives, remembering that sweet dog.

Robbie, our six-year old English Shepherd, was put to sleep yesterday. I picked him from the veterinarian’s office packed in a box and drove home. I started digging a grave in the middle of the garden. Cindy came out and got a spade and joined in the work. In very little time we dug down three feet a tidy rectangle.

Cindy went back to the house. I opened up the box and took Robbie out, such a beautiful dog even in death. For a working breed he had lovely quiet disposition, sometimes too quiet and easy going for his job as farm dog.

He was the classic “lover not a fighter.” The exception was with Becky or a strange dog; from time to time they would without warning tear into each other. Just last Sunday as we walked in the woods, Becky and Robbie sparred for a full ten minutes, leaving each other bruised, bloodied and ready for more.

On Tuesday morning well before dawn, we let Robbie and Tip out of the mud room; Becky stays out all night. By the time we had coffee and Cindy left for work, Robbie had traveled the quarter-mile to the road, been hit by a car, walked up the drive twenty yards and collapsed in shock.

Cindy spotted him curled up in the grass at the side of the driveway and rushed back to get me. Using a blanket, we wrapped him up and put him in my truck and took off to the vet. Not Robbie’s first rodeo: a fractured tibia from catching his leg between metal slats jumping off a hay wagon, a severed artery of unknown cause.

The x-rays showed a smashed pelvis and hemorrhaging in the chest cavity. Two nights and three days in the hospital and he came home. The internal bleeding had stopped, but they couldn’t do anything with the pelvis. Cindy took Robbie to a vet on Friday that specializes in surgery on dogs. They did more x-rays. This time they discovered that the pelvis was worse than originally thought, but they could fix it for around $3000. No guarantees, but a reasonable prognosis with a long recovery. Surgery was scheduled immediately. First, though, bloodwork in response to Cindy’s observation of urinary incontinence. The vet discovered that Robbie’s bladder had ruptured. Repairable, with more surgery. In the blink of an eye, we were now looking at vet bills totaling $5000. A decision had to be made immediately.

What is the value of a loving and loyal pet? Do we love our pets more or less when we make decisions based on cost? There is no easy or correct answer. Cindy, who was back at work, would probably have opted for the surgery. In a hurried, emotional phone discussion, I suggested it was time to let our much-loved Robbie go. We made the choice, and I called the vet and asked them to put him to sleep.

He was still warm when I pulled him out of the box. I held him for a few minutes before laying him on the dirt. Shoveling dirt, gently at first until covered and then faster, until the grave was filled and mounded over the top. Cindy went out later and spent time at the gravesite.

He now belongs to the future as much as the past.