Kahn was someone’s house cat once. I’m almost sure of it. Feral cats don’t come to humans to ask for help, which is just what he was doing when he and I first met. It… More
As an Almost Farmgirl living in the heart of the Midwest, I spend a lot of time thinking about winter. Planning for the next round of cold begins almost as soon as things warm up in the Spring. How much hay did I use last year? How much hay will I need this year? How much space will it take up? Should I put up a lean-to shed this year for the horses or can it wait until next year? (Note: I decided to wait. I shouldn’t have.)
When most people are watching fireworks in July, I’m stacking hay to last me through January.
…No. Seriously, my last two Independence Day Celebrations looked something like this:
And when most of you are sighing in relief at the first break in the heat in early September, I’m beginning to wonder how long I have until the ice comes and the water spigot in the horse barn freezes. Weirdly though? I don’t hate winter, even with all of it’s extra work and required logistics.
Last week, I woke to our first snow of the season. It’s usually the first sign that winter has checked in, and with him his ice and white and wonder. (And freeze your ass off, wear three pairs of pants to prevent frostbite temperatures…it’s a mixed bag). I woke to snowflakes falling, and I spent my time before morning chores in my sunroom; I drank my coffee, snuggled with the cat who climbed into my lap, and just watched the snow fall. I’m not a huge fan of the cold, but I adore the snow. (And I’ve always believe that if it has to be cold outside, it might as well be pretty.)
This year, the winter season came late and quiet. While my love for the winter season isn’t usually long-lived, I will admit to a predictable infatuation that comes briefly every year when snow first starts to blanket the ground. Earlier this week, while the snow fell, I fell enamored.
It’s so many little things this time of year. Maybe it’s the ugliness of the gray brown mud being covered up with something so lovely and unblemished as the snow. The birds, so hard to spot against the lush green backdrop of the woods in summer suddenly stark and visible against a white, winter canvas.
(I have an arrangement with the wild birds of this place when the temperature plummets: I feed them, and they make me smile when I watch them out of my windows. Of course, I have no objection if the woodland neighbors stop by for a nibble of corn as well, and this girl was just outside my bedroom window that evening.)
My dad came to help me with morning chores while it snowed. Regular maintenance met seasonal necessity, and we worked for an hour and a half to get the ranch ready for the day and ready for the season. Water heaters were set up. Heat lamps plugged in. Round bales set out.
Then, with all of the creatures comfortably tucked in, I did the strangest thing. I went into the house, took a hot shower, put pajamas back on, and sat on my couch for the rest of the afternoon watching the snow fall, reading a book, and cuddling with a cat.
Not even laundry.
(I am beginning to be a big believer in occasionally doing nothing…)
Only after an entire afternoon of blissful nonaccomplishment did I wander out in the dusk to start evening chores.
There is something so complete about the quietness that comes hand in hand with the first snow. During all of our other seasons even the quiet comes with a subtle cacophony of nature: owls, crickets, frogs, all of them singing their songs as I go about my business. But in the winter, the quiet takes on an austerity. It’s the sort of quiet that feels holy: an invitation to notice what stillness feels like, or maybe just an invitation to notice. The only sound was the crunch of my own footsteps as I walked to the barn, so I stopped walking.
The ground glittered.
The woods were perfectly still.
The world looked like a painting in black and white; the harsh edges softened. The muck temporarily erased.
The quiet was complete, and for a moment, winter felt utterly magical.
Merry Christmas, Everyone. May it feel utterly magical.
I spent the other morning holding the lead line of my largest horse, an off the track thoroughbred named Vinny, while our vet quietly sedated him and stitched a gaping dermal laceration on his neck. It was ugly, probably four inches long, and bloody, a surprise when I went out to check the horses. It’s his second emergency vet visit this month; a few weeks ago he tore open his shoulder open just about six inches below his current tear. That, plus another “stitch” visit (for one of my ponies, Slash) has made our vet such a common sight for us this month that I’m beginning to feel like he lives here.
I’m still not entirely sure how he hurt himself. Sometimes with horses it’s like that. You just have to concentrate on fixing the issues even if you don’t understand why there was an issue in the first place.
I watched the vet stretch the broken skin back over the tissue on Vin’s neck. Vin, whose sedation had him happily enjoying the sound of the color orange, barely seemed to notice the curved needle slowly, methodically, putting him back together where he had torn himself apart.
There’s been a lot of stitching around the farm lately: literal and metaphoric.
I’ve not made a secret of the fact that this last year and a half have been among the most difficult of my life. I haven’t been entirely open about the fact that this year threw me into the sort of depression I haven’t seen since college and had hoped to never see again.
The last eighteen months have been difficult for me for a lot of reasons, many of them stories that aren’t entirely mine to tell. I’ve lost creatures who were dear to me. I’ve had relationships that I believed to be as steady and dependable as the hills turn upside down. I’ve lost people I cared for. And, for a little while, it began to feel like I would lose myself.
Depression is a strange thing, and a lot of people just don’t understand it. It isn’t just “sad.” We all get sad, and we all feel depressed sometimes. But honest to goodness depression takes up residence, moving in as a second occupant in your life, one that zaps you of all the joy you would normally feel. Days that should be good feel indifferent, and days that would normally be difficult feel impossible. It leaves you nearly numb to the best of life while simultaneously leaving you raw and exposed to the worst of it, like nerves that have been left open to the air.
Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t that I haven’t had a good day for over a year, but all of the good seemed to belong to a sort of fog that wouldn’t entirely lift. I spent a lot of time crying, a lot of time talking with friends (while crying), and a really healthy chunk of time talking to a therapist (still crying).
But then, last week, the fog lifted.
I want to be careful here, because a lot of people who are depressed are told to just “get over it” or “think positive,” and I don’t want to contribute to the belief that it’s that simple. Trust me when I tell you that if a depressed person could just “happy thoughts” their way out of depression, they would. But I will say that the end of my depression seemed to come from a new understanding of my emotions and thoughts. I began to understand how to not be a slave to them, how to take the negative thoughts off of the endless loop that had been created in my head before they could direct my emotions and thereby control my worldview. I decided not to give those thoughts the time of day-dismissing them, not repressing them-and with them left the fog.
I cannot explain why it worked this time and didn’t the thousand other times I tried to “be more positive.” I don’t have a formula. Despite my Midwestern upbringing with it’s emphasis on hard work and bootstrap success, I would not say that I pulled myself out of this by force of will.
I have never had depression flip like a switch before. In the past, climbing out of it was slow and difficult, a trail you blaze uphill in a Midwestern heat wave.
I just know that I was depressed for a really long time and now I’m not. I know because the numbness is gone. Food tastes better (or, really, just tastes). I can see the beauty in small things. And I can feel things fully, all the way down to my soul.
Guys, today I found myself reflecting on just how stunningly beautiful the color green is and just how delicious raspberry jelly tastes. It seems ridiculous, but when you’ve been deprived of feeling deeply for this long, when you’ve been numb, you appreciate things that most people would overlook a million times.
This last week has been like waking up, shaking off the dust of a sleep that lasted far too long.
So why am I telling you this?
We live in an age of Instagram and WordPress and Facebook. And, because of that, we think we see each other, but most of the time we don’t. We see the lives of everyone else through a filter, and we see our own lives without one, and we start to think that maybe we are the only ones who don’t have our shit together. And I don’t want this blog, this space, to be one more place to see through that sort of filter. Yes, I have a thousand pictures of adorable, fluffy animals. Yes, I adore this place and this opportunity. Yes, it’s serene and beautiful and lovely…and a complete and total mess.
I’ve tried to write about all of this a dozen times in the last eighteen months, and I think I’ve touched on it here and there, but I couldn’t really find the words. Maybe because of the numbness, maybe because of fear. (If I’m being honest, this is a scary thing to hit the publish button on…) Likely because it came hand-in-hand with a hefty dose of writer’s block.
But here it is: If you feel like your life is in chaos, I can promise you that you aren’t alone. If you’re depressed, you’re not alone. If every single day feels like walking through quicksand, I’ve been there. If you’re looking at your life in disbelief, wondering how on earth you got here, I understand.
You are not alone, and it gets better.
I remember having lunch with a dear friend a few months ago and learning about some of the struggles she faced in high school. I was stunned by what she told me. Flabbergasted by what she had suffered through alone. She didn’t have to be alone. I was only a phone call away the whole time, but she didn’t pick up the phone.
Depression is bad enough all by itself. It can be isolating, and it does a really good job of making you feel unworthy of love and light. And the more you pull into yourself, the worse it gets. It’s not a mood. It’s a disease. And isolation and loneliness are symptoms.
If I learned nothing else in the last year and a half, I learned this: Reach out.
Glennon Melton of Momastery.com (one of my Yodas these days) says this:
“Sometimes life’s load gets too heavy and hard for us to carry alone. I don’t think the hard is a mistake. I don’t think the hard means we’ve done anything wrong. I think the hard is purposeful, so that we’ll need our sisters.”
Sisters, brothers, friends…we need our people. None of us are without struggle. None of us can do it alone. We all need each other. Especially when it feels like the best course of action is to shut down into yourself.
Vin’s stiches came together beautifully. Then he came out of the sedation slowly. Today, my herd check revealed that his neck is healing well; I’m not sure there will even be a scar from this wound.
It’s amazing, the things that can be stitched back together.
“Oh, I’ve never fallen off…”
She thinks she’s bragging, but the little girl, or teen, or grown-ass woman (or perhaps man) who utters those words in the horseback riding world has failed to read the room. We are not impressed. In fact, the polite among us are trying not to laugh in her face. She looks with at the other riders with expectation, all of us with muck on our boots, sweat under our helmets and horsehair on our jeans. We, she implies, have fallen, and she has not; therefore, obviously, her skills are greater. We should accept the inevitable conclusion that she is the superior rider.
It’s almost cute, really…
But we know something she doesn’t. We know there are only two types of horseback riders: Those who have fallen off, and those who will. Continue reading “Falling”
I know. I know. That phrase usually belongs to Christmas, and I love Christmas, but whoever first coined that phrase and applied it to Christmastime obviously didn’t know the joys of springtime on a ranch.
Out here in the Midwest, March is when the Earth starts to wake from her long, restless, winter sleep, but, like me before my first cup of coffee, she moves slowly, and yawning, meanders through the month in a bit of a cloud covered haze. March comes with sprinklings of hope and signs of warmth. But it also comes with snows and drops from 70 degrees one day to 25 degrees the next. March is the messenger that Spring is coming, but March is not Spring.
But April? In April, things come alive again. For about two weeks, I have been soaking in blue skies and green grass. Reveling in the new flowers, chirping birds, buzzing bees. I find that there is something deeply intoxicating about the color green, and I’ve spent hours and hours aimlessly wandering our fields to soak in the spirits of the season.
Spring is when the ranch wakes up again.
My first trip to the ranch was in the Spring, over 15 years ago now. I recently stumbled across that story, one originally written for a Master’s level class in creative nonfiction. If you’ve ever wondered how on earth I ended up on this ranch, this is it. That day was when my love affair with the ranch started; thus far, with ten years on my marriage to Jeremiah, it’s been the most enduring love of my life.
It doesn’t hurt that it all started one beautiful Spring day… Continue reading “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”
Let’s be honest. You don’t need to follow this blog very long to realize that, on this sixty (plus or minus) animal, 100 acre ranch, the chickens basically rule the roost.
They steal grain from the llamas and horses. They hijack hay feeders to use as nesting boxes.
Each one has her own little personality and habits.
These chickens spend their days meandering around the pastures. They dust bathe. They eat kitchen scraps in addition to their feed and their homemade scratch. In short, they spend their day (and their lives) being chickens and doing chickeny things.
I’ve found when most people think of chickens, they think of chickens like mine, scratching and pecking and chickening to their hearts content in green fields and deeply bedded, comfy coops.
But most chickens, whether raised for egg-laying or meat production, will never see a comfy coop or a green field.
The average cost of a dozen eggs at the supermarket is $1.41, so I understand why some people have sticker shock when their local farmers charge between $4 and $6 a dozen. But, as they say, you get what you pay for.
The reason those store bought eggs are so cheap? Confinement. Most egg laying chickens, even today with a grass-roots push towards “cage free” eggs, live their lives in battery cages with almost no space: 67 square inches according to The Humane Society. (That’s less than the space covered by a piece of letter-sized paper.) Each cage holds five to ten birds and lends to a high rate of injury for the animals. They can’t even flap their wings, let alone walk around. Even “cage free” doesn’t really mean they have adequate space or outdoor access, but we’ll get into labels later.
These hens have short lives and are never allowed to be chickens. On their hatch day, they are sexed. The males, an estimated 6 billion of them annually who are useless to the egg industry, are deposed of, usually gassed or put through a grinder (yes, alive). The females are beaked (meaning part of their beaks are cut or burned off without anesthetic to disallow pecking of other nearby hens or pulling out feathers), a painful procedure that causes great distress. After being beaked, the hens will spend the rest of their lives struggling to properly eat. Then, they are confined. They cannot perch, dust bathe, or exercise. Ever. (For comparison, sit down cross-legged; now imagine that you have to stay there, like that, for the rest of your life.) When they are at the end of their egg laying cycles, they are starved for 7-14 days and go through a forced molt that will cause them to lay again for just a little while longer before they are killed. (The forced molt is linked to higher instance of salmonella due to the hen’s compromised physical state, so it is in neither the consumers best interest nor the hens’…just the best interest of the company.)
A chicken can naturally live 7-10 years. Egg industry chickens survive maybe 3 egg laying cycles.
Why am I telling all of you this? Honestly, it’s because I love animals, including chickens, and, for the most part I know that the people who read this blog love animals too.
Also, I like to eat eggs, and that’s ok. Consuming eggs is not inherently tied to these immoral practices. There are steps you can take to ensure that your eggs come from happier, healthier hens.
- Know your egg carton labels.
- If you must buy grocery store eggs, strive for cartons labeled “Animal Welfare Approved.” Usually these are organic eggs, and to get the label, the farmers must provide outdoor access (for specific amounts of time and with specific conditions) and enough room to perch, nest, and spread their wings. Beaking is prohibited, as is forced molting.
- Other labels related to animal welfare (from best to worst though all of these are better than not) are “pasture raised,” “USDA Organic, “free-range” or “free-roaming,” and “cage free.”
- Buy Local!!!
- Your local farmers’ market, farm stand, or chicken-obsessed neighbor are your very best egg sources. Our pastured hens are happier and healthier. The eggs are higher quality and so much more fresh! (Did you know that the eggs on the shelf at the grocery are usually a month old before they get to the store? Gross!!!) Many farmers’ market farmers bring photos of their hens living conditions and are happy to discuss animal welfare. Ask and you shall see! I promise if you make the switch to eggs from small production farms, you won’t regret it.
- Raise your own happy, healthy hens!
- Don’t get me wrong, chickens are a lot of responsibility and keeping them should be entered into with your eyes wide open, but they are such fun, and it is wonderful to know EXACTLY how the hens who lay your eggs are treated, what they eat, and how they live. If you have questions about what that takes, shoot me an email or follow Almost Farmgirl on Facebook and connect (there’s an easy-peasy link at the bottom of your page).
There are so many happy healthy hens around whose owners would be thrilled to sell you eggs. Of course, eggs from our hens costs more, because we give our hens the food and space and conditions that allow them to thrive. Some of us even allow our layers to live into their natural old age, long past their egg laying usefulness. (I will gladly pay to feed my chickens into their useless years!)
The lives of most of these animals is short and miserable. But it doesn’t have to be. We can do better. We can be better. And it can start with you.
Want to learn more? Check out these resources/references:
And, from the archives:
My bipedal servants seem to think that I owe you an apology.
I think they’re wrong…but they do refill the hay nets on demand, and I believe that they have access to grain, even though they don’t give me any of it, so I do what I can to stay in their good graces when it isn’t too inconvenient.
I, of course, am Slash. High King of the Hill, Guardian of Camelot, and First Pony of the Alpacalypse.
I assume you’ve heard of me? (Of course you have. It was silly of me to even ask, but I do try to stay humble.)
And you, I believe, are referred to by the bipeds a “Neigh Bores.” (They worry about us making noise, but you have “Neigh” right there in your name.) I gather that you are other bipeds who are not indentured to any equines, camelids, or chooks. That’s sad for you, but I won’t rub it in, as I imagine it is a source of despair and humiliation in your little hooman lives. (Seriously, what do you even do with your time? If a hooman wakes up in the morning without a horse to feed, does it even exist?)
Oh, right, apology…
(How does one even do this?)
I’m sorry that you were unprepared to behold all of my majesty, standing, as it were, in your front yard. It must have been quite a shock. (Next time, avoid looking at me directly, or perhaps wear sunglasses. I hear that helps when beholding glory.)
Also, that I pooped on your lawn; apparently that was “inappropriate” and “gross.”
In my defense, it was a lovely yard, and someone left corn there.
(*Editors note: regardless of how hard I try to convince him otherwise, Slash still thinks you left the corn there for him, as he believe that feeding the local deer is a waste of perfectly good horse food.)
My servants have informed me that it was naughty of me to climb under the gate and spend the day “running amok” while they were at work.
I think it’s naughty of them to put up gates and fences. We all have opinions.
The bipeds wish for me to conclude this little literary experiment with a promise to “never be such a little ass again,” but there, they ask too much. (Also, I’m really not sure how they can mistake me for a donkey, but the one is pretty nearsighted.)
I will grace you with my presence as soon as I can once again escape these foul fence lines. Leave more corn next time, and try to shoo the deer off as they were in my way.
(Ha. Not really)
(*Editors note: The neighbors were actually super nice about the fact that our tiny horse took up temporary residence in their front lawn.)
Do you guys remember my three little turkey peeps from last year? The ones we rescued from the feed store when it became clear that they were quickly destined to be dinner?
We lost one little peep (my favorite) to his birth defect. We lost another to a predator.
But one of the little peeps survived.
And he isn’t so little anymore.
Meet Arthur of Camelot.
(You know, because llamas are camelids, and he lives with them…Aren’t we clever?)
He is a year old, nearly fifty pound, broad-breasted Tom.
Being a broad breasted turkey, Arthur is basically a mutant, but he’s our mutant, so we love him. He spends his days wandering around, looking pretty, gobbling about how impressive he is, and also following Jeremiah and I around while we do chores, requesting clover flowers and chest scratches.
After he lost both his friends, I sort of panicked that he would be lonely, so I searched online for a couple of pet turkeys. (I’m realizing that that sentence says more about who I am than almost anything I’ve ever written on here…)
I found these two. In keeping with our Camelot theme, I named them Guinevere and Morgana.
Unlike Arthur, they are a heritage breed (Blue Slate), so I don’t have to worry about them outgrowing their own skeletal system, which, frankly, is a relief.
Of course, Arthur never really bonded with them and, instead, thinks he’s an alpaca who happens to gobble a lot.
And the Blue Slates never really bonded with him either. In fact, they don’t seem to know they aren’t chickens.
So, I guess my mission to find friends for Arthur kind of failed.
I ended up with three completely useless, but kinda cute, birds that I never really planned on. I nicknamed them “the three most useless creatures on the farm,” and just accepted their gobble-y little selves for what they were…
But, it turns out, I had it all wrong. They aren’t so useless at all.
A few weeks ago, Jeremiah and I were standing in front of the llama barn talking while the poultry free-ranged. They were scattered about the pastures when I glanced up and noticed a sandhill crane flying over the farm. It wasn’t a hawk or an eagle, both of which will gladly prey upon my flock, but Arthur didn’t know that.
I watched him look up and start gobbling (apparently a different than normal gobble). As soon as his warning went out, all of my hens and the two other turkeys ducked and ran as fast as their little feathery legs could carry them out of the open pasture and into the barn!
That was when we realized that our ridiculous, fifty pound, pet turkey had appointed himself as guardian of our flock (like any good turkey who thinks he’s an alpaca would), doing a better job of watching out for the girls than any rooster we’ve ever had. (Guys, it was maybe the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. I swear, he practically counted them once they were in to make sure everyone made it.)
Of course, that’s just one with a purpose out of three…
Until about two weeks ago.
See that fancy pants, speckled egg on top? That was our first ever turkey egg!
The turkey hens just started laying. So far, they’ve almost kept pace with the chickens, laying these big speckled eggs in the same nesting boxes.
The turkey eggs have higher fat and cholesterol than the chicken eggs, which makes them less ideal as a stand alone food, but perfect for baking! (I started using them last week, making a dish of brownies for my mom, and then another for my brother-in-law’s birthday.)
Guys, you have not lived until you have eaten brownies made with turkey eggs! They are so rich that it’s almost like fudge. I’m excited to experiment with cakes and breads!
Turns out, my turkeys had purpose all along. I just didn’t know it yet.
It’s almost like there’s a script, a list of exact lines shared with the rest of the world, but not with me.
Every. Single. Time. I say I have llamas.
“Oh…Aren’t they mean?”
Yes. Yes. They are horrible attack monsters unrivaled by all but cthulha and the kraken. I cower before them as I walk through the barns and the pastures, willing them not to see me as I pass. In fact, they have imprisoned me on this ridgeline against my will; I am bound in eternal servitude to their highness(es).
But, honestly, the question does come up nearly every time someone learns that we have llamas. Let’s just set the record straight, shall we?
- The friendliness of a llama is dependent on its handling and its genetics. (Like, you know, all other animals…and, frankly, people.)
- My llamas are not mean. Not all of them are exceptionally friendly; our rescues especially have a tendency to be standoffish. (But seriously, why on earth would I keep twenty violent, angry animals around as pets???)
- Some llamas are mean, just like some dogs, cats, horses, and chickens are mean.
- The llamas you met at the petting zoo (farm park, the pasture that sat caty-corner to the elementary school, etc), the ones you always tell me about, they probably were mean. Llamas really aren’t built for the petting zoo environment. They will get super stressed and will NOT be friendly.
- Llamas and alpacas do spit. It’s their defense response.
- Yes, I have been spit on.
- Yes. It’s really freaking gross.
- No, my llama probably isn’t going to spit on you unless you do something to really deserve it. A well-socialized llama isn’t likely to spit at a person. (Full disclosure – I did once have a llama spit at my sister-in-law for no good reason AT ALL. That is really odd behavior, but it seemed the llama just really hated her.)
I sort of get it I guess: Llamas are rare enough that most people have limited experience with them, and everyone has a cousin whose friend got spit on that one time (or whatever).
But honestly, these creatures are pretty misunderstood. The llamas at my farm have played host to kids birthday parties, allowing five year olds to lead them through an obstacle course or on a walking trail. They have been showed all over the Midwest.
They have visited nursing homes and schools and daycare centers.
And, even now, they take center stage when visitors, large or small, visit the farm.
Now, does that look like a mean creature to you???
I was reading a post from LittleSunDog (one of my favorite wordpress bloggers) about small, sometimes unseen, acts of compassion. She wrote about saving a butterfly from flying into a bonfire, deciding not to cut down an old tree because there was a family of squirrels living in it…that sort of thing.
And it got me thinking about life out here on the ranch. We live out here at the intersection of wild and domestic. The bulk of the property is woodland-with approximately 80 of Eagle Ridge’s 100 acres in forest-and, were we to let it be completely, it would reclaim this dwelling on the top of the hill in just a few years I think.
Living at the intersection of wild and domestic creates a certain tension: we struggle to care for the wildness while at the same time guarding against it. And it can be very difficult to know where to draw the line.
I never thought I’d spend so much time thinking about poultry…
When we agreed to buy the ranch, I begin mentally preparing for the chickens. I bought books; I read blogs; I meticulously picked out the breeds I wanted. I read articles about why chickens should only eat organic feed (for the record, even I don’t eat all organic feed…). I read about all the ways predators can get to your flock. I read about parasites and natural worming vs. chemical worming. I started following Fresh Eggs Daily, Garden Betty, and DIY Diva, soaking up every last bit of chickeny knowledge they had to offer. Continue reading “That moment when you realize you’ve gone from “chicken lady” to “crazy chicken lady””