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.

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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. 

Engagement

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.

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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.

Robbie

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.

A Lamb’s Life

Winter: It was 24 degrees the morning No. 28 was born. Sleet pellets bounced off my old Carhartt jacket and the sky was slate gray when I headed out on my early morning rounds. The two cups of hot coffee helped little in warding off the chill wind as I rushed through my outdoor chores before reaching the relative warmth of the barn.

Entering a barn during lambing season involves careful observation: Who is soon to lamb, and is anyone showing signs of a distressed labor? Who has lambed already, and are all lambs up and nursing? The experienced mother will keep close track of her offspring, protecting them from the scrum of other sheep, but a first-time mother is easily unnerved and will often rush outside without her newborns, trailing the afterbirth, oblivious to what is expected of her in this new role in life.

On this particular morning, January 6th, a handful of fresh faces greeted me — the most exciting, twins born to our favorite ewe, No. 1333. No. 1333 is a large, handsome ewe who is uncommonly friendly, always standing still to receive a good scratching. As in the previous lambing season, she had just given birth to a male and a female. Much to our disappointment, she had lost the last year’s ewe lamb in a freak accident. We were anxious that nothing go wrong this time.

Later in the day, we eartagged No. 28 and her twin, 29. Eventually, we’d finish the season with 44 lambs, but in this first week of the year, lambing was just getting started. Other than the identifying numbers, the twins were soon indistinguishable from the mass of other lambs, running in and out of the larger flock, occasionally pummeling the udders of their moms.

Spring: Unlike the long and devastating drought of the previous year, this winter and spring’s rains had created a lush growth by April. It became a daily occurrence for us to remark on the change in landscape, as the unnatural browns gave way to the deepest greens. The lambs and ewes were turned out on new grass and thrived. For hours on end we’d watch the youngsters, tumbling about in soft grass at play, interrupted only by a mother’s bleat or a long, sun-warmed nap. Throughout the season, the inevitable deaths occurred: the lamb born at night that managed to roll outside the barn and die from the elements; the one I had to dispatch mercifully after it was stepped on by the flock and broke its back.

Summer: Mild temperatures and steady rain, a record hay crop, and modest garden success provided the backdrop as our little No. 28 transformed into a hardy, large-framed weanling. In June we separated the babies from their mothers. For the next few days, the moms would crowd one gate, the lambs another, fifty yards between them, and bleat. Loudly. Day and night. Another couple of days and the moms turned their attention back to the grass; a couple more and the lambs finally followed suit. Weaning accomplished, quiet restored.

Fall: It was an October evening during the late Indian summer, as we headed out to a dinner with friends, that we spotted a lamb lying down in the tall grass of the bottom pasture, noticeable by its isolation from the flock. We stopped the car and walked out to the field. There she was, No. 28, head up, alert, but unmoving.

Sheep are prey animals. They don’t lie down and stay down until they’re physically unable to go anymore. A quick check of the lamb’s gums revealed an unhealthy lack of color. Seemingly overnight, she had lost all of her body fat. We grabbed a wheelbarrow, put her in for the ride, and I pushed her up the long hill to the barn. We secured her in a stall and went on to dinner.

Over the next several days, we treated her with two different types of wormers. For us, worming is an infrequent occurrence. All sheep have some internal parasites, but we select and cull based on an individual sheep’s ability to carry a small enough “worm load” that she thrives without repeated use of parasiticides.

Each morning, we’d bring a bucket of warm water and mild soap to the barn and sponge off the accumulated scouring (diarrhea) from No. 28’s rear legs. After the second wormer was administered, the feces became solid, well formed — not what you’d expect from a lamb with a heavy parasite load. At that point we began to suspect something else was at work, since No. 28 remained alert, yet still unable to stand.

The day before we found her lying in the lower field, our 200-pound ram had managed to breach a fence and spend the night with our ewe lambs. Our new working hypothesis was that the ram had attempted to breed the developing young ewe and caused some nerve damage.

Having ascertained that her back was not broken, we rigged up a makeshift sling of saddle girths in hopes of retraining No. 28 to stand. For the next three days, we placed her in the sling three times a day with her feet just touching the ground. We would exercise each leg, moving it forward and backward, side to side. Through all of this, the ewe lamb continued to have a healthy appetite. We were committed to nursing her as long as the possibility of recovery still existed. But recovery was not to be.

On the morning of the fourth day, when I entered the barn, No. 28 was lying upright, but her head was extended forward onto the hay. This is never a good sign, but we were both loathe to give up on her too soon. We were anxious to preserve both her genetics and her life. She remained a calm, affectionate lamb, seemingly glad to have you stroke her head even in her distress.

Leaving the barn, I headed out to finish bush-hogging an upper pasture. We had a cold front coming in around midday and were expecting rain. It was a few hours before I made my noonday hospital visit to the patient. This time, when I approached, her neck was stretched out in the hay, her body limp, like a balloon with a slow leak. Her eyes still followed me, but without the usual spark. This was an act in a play that we had seen too many times. She was going to die — it was now just a matter of when.

I walked slowly back to the house. I picked up my 30-30 and returned to the barn. The lamb’s labored breathing was audible when I opened the stall gate. I raised the rifle and shot her between and just above both watching eyes. She died instantly.

Outside, the cold rain began to fall on the valley. I went back to the house, gun in my hand, breathing in the smell of the rain, of this season, aware of this rhythm, this awful beauty in the dying of the year. But I continued to look ahead, on another cold day in early January, to when the next lambing season begins on our farm, always in hope and sometimes in death.

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Reading this weekend: The Art of Loading Brush: new agrarian writings, by Wendell Berry. And, The Lean Farm: how to minimize waste, increase efficiency, and maximize value and profits with less work, by Ben Hartman. Both, seemingly at odds with each other upon first glance.

The Path We Take

Turn left in 300 feet … turn left … turn left…. Rerouting … rerouting … rerouting.

Recently, a young relative of mine set out on a 600-mile road trip to attend his cousin’s wedding — and got lost halfway there when his phone went dead. Hearing of his misadventure I was confused. How could someone go so far and then get lost? And how did a dead phone terminate his travels? Did he not consult a map? Own one? Pick up the free one at the state line? No, apparently a map wasn’t needed because he had a smart phone. Until it wasn’t. The would-be wedding guest set off on an eight-hour-plus journey, armed with no more than an address to guide him in where and how he was going. So, what did he do, when the phone, and consequently the GPS, died? He turned around and drove home.

As kids, my older brother and I would sit down with the National Geographic and, starting in June, begin to dream about August vacation destinations. The back pages of the magazine were chock-full of advertisements from state tourism boards. We’d send off for packets from exciting places like Montana, New Mexico, and Idaho, all locations with elevations higher than the six-feet-above-sea-level spot that we called home. Soon, fat packages of maps and “things to do” would arrive in the mail.

The maps would be unfolded on the kitchen table, where we would trace out routes we might take on the most narrow and obscure road possible. “Let’s drive down this little road in this valley south of Missoula,” I’d say. We’d pull out the encyclopedia and read about places we were going to visit. There were shoeboxes jammed with maps in the closet, a big globe and stacks of atlases in the den.

Today, in my own library, there resides a broad assortment of state and international maps and world and historical atlases. Because, maps give us more than a hopeful path to a distant destination. They inform. Why is there a Northwest Angle exclave in Minnesota, and just what is an exclave anyway? Where were the original colonial boundaries of North Carolina? How did the frontier of the late Roman Empire contract? Maps inform, and they also feed our curiosity: Is Puerto Rico surrounded by water? (Why, indeed it is, Mr. President.) They serve as a springboard into the past, present, and future. And, yes, even answer the mundane: What are my options for getting to a wedding in Oregon?

Of course, GPS is a remarkable technological feature. It gets us to a destination without getting lost, without having to wonder where we are. Yet, cocooning ourselves in a cushion of geographical illiteracy also breeds a listless lack of awareness, demanding nothing more from us than an abiding self-interest. And, in the absence of an alternative mode of mapping — whether it’s orienting to the sun or grabbing the gazetteer — when the GPS goes dark, it leaves us with no option but to turn around and go home, wherever that might be.

Another Day on the Farm

the time before sunrise

Dawn: Sitting on the back deck with a first cup of coffee, I contemplate the rain-soaked windrows of hay on the hill in front of me. I had just finished baling half of what would have been a record harvest the previous evening, when the storm broke over the ridge with heavy winds, rain, and hail. Limping home on the tractor, I saw a glass that was half empty. Now, in the early dawn light of a new day, I see my work cut out for me: turning over windrows to let them dry out before attempting to bale the remainder of the hay. The dogs interrupt my thoughts to announce a coyote halfway up the hill. He stares down at his accusers, separated by a woven wire fence, and, with a distinctive limp, turns and abandons the hayfield. “Comrade,” I say into the morning air.

Mid-morning: I rustle a branch and a mourning dove explodes out of the crabapple tree. Leaning in on my orchard ladder, I part the curtain of twigs and leaves. There, hidden in the heart of the branches, is a single fledgling within days of its first flight. Fat and unlovely, like the son who won’t leave home, it takes up the whole nest. It stares at me with one anticipating eye before, in a “you aren’t my mother” moment, turning back to its inner world of waiting. I close the curtain and finish my harvest. I return to the house with two full buckets of fruit.

Noon: I toss down the last of the fresh bedding for the lambs, completing one of my more enjoyable tasks on the farm. I’m tempted to collapse into the soft hay, but instead grab a bag of minerals to fill up the flock’s saltbox. Before filling, I turn over the box to knock out the bits of poop and straw. And, in the doing, uncover a large nest of mice. Dozens of small rodents swarm over my boots and out the sides of the barn to safety. The dogs jump into action, fulfilling their designated role on the other side of the gate with loud abandon. Inside the barn, two dozen lambs stampede the saltbox, obliviously trampling the remaining mice. I quickly dump out the mineral and then leave the natural order to sort itself out.

Evening: I’m back on the deck, a pint of beer in hand, the same drying windrows in front of me. The dogs assume I need convincing of their utility and pick up their pattern of wild barking toward the hill. I rise from my chair and spot a large buck with impressive antlers. He stands in the evening light, the last rays of the setting sun as his company. Ignoring the peasant dogs, he turns and strolls with a dignified air over the hill and out of sight.

Raising my glass, I toast him and the close of another day on the farm.

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Reading this weekend: The Retro Future: looking to the past to reinvent the future. By J. M. Greer.