Ice and Bluebells

It’s been one of “those” days.

You know the ones…

It’s the sort of day that feels a bit like three.  Nothing goes catastrophically wrong, but things don’t go quite right either.  Minor inconveniences twang at the edges of your nerves like a curious toddler smacking the strings of a slightly out of tune banjo with their open hand.  There is nothing intentional or melodic about it, but there is a lot of noise.

It’s the sort of day I tend to have out here at the tail-end of winter, when it is just too fucking cold for roughly the millionth day in a row, and all I want to do is shut myself in the house for three or four days with cozy blankets, a warm hot chocolate, a roaring fire, and a great memoir, but I’ve given up sugar (so no hot cocoa), I can’t get a fire to catch without a starter log that I forgot to buy, the horses need round bales put out and the ponies are hungry, so I have to brave the frozen tundra just long enough for my fingers and toes to go numb through my gloves and boots instead.

It’s been that kind of day.

<<<>>>

It’s been a difficult winter.

Cold, snow, and ice have been tracks playing on repeat this season, a symphony Elsa herself would be proud of.  Outside of the polar vortex with it’s -55 wild chills–as though that wasn’t enough all on it’s own–we’ve also had record breaking snowfalls, winter storms gracing the forecast with alarming regularity, and ice.  Lots of ice.

The Midwest is a place that NEEDS its seasons.  The summer is too summery to last forever.  I couldn’t handle the horse flies or poison ivy or 100 degree days with staggering humidity all year long, even in exchange for the fireflies, wildflowers, and warm summer nights.  By August, I’m looking forward to the drop in temperature,  bonfires, and pumpkin everything that are coming around the corner.  Likewise, I start getting stir crazy at the end of winter.  (For the love of all that is good and holy, give me just one day that I don’t wind up feeling cold!)  Right now, I am aching for 45 degrees, chores without a bulky winter coat, and a slow slide into spring.

There are bluebells and daffodils tucked under the frozen dirt somewhere; I just know it.  Gardens to clean up.  Chicks to raise.  Native bee houses, bat houses, and bird houses to put up.  Seeds to sow in ground that needs tilling.  Raised beds I was given for Christmas that are just waiting for me to find them homes.  There are bikes to ride.  Horses to groom.  Ponies to begin socializing.  There are a thousand plans swirling around in my head, more than one summer can possibly contain, but I feel like that’s half the fun.

In the meantime though, my clay rich dirt is as hard as rock.  My full bale hay nets are frozen to the ground and completely unusable.  The chicken coop is desperate for a good cleaning, but I won’t be able to do a thing with it until the thaw.  Until winter begins to release it’s freezing grip, the only thing I can do is continue.

<<<>>>

I was cranky when I met my hay supplier at my horse pasture around 5:15.  I think maybe he was too.  Not at each other, mind you, at the cold weather and the setting sun.

“How are you holding up out here?”

I tried not to look at the hundreds of dollars of hay waste on the ground.  Without my nets to slow them down, the horses have been going through hay like a trust fund baby going through cash on their first trip to Vegas.  This winter is costing more than emotional energy.

“Hanging in,” I replied.  “Sick and tired of the cold.”

Larry looked up, searching the skies for just a moment before replying.

“I saw the geese flying north earlier.”

That’s the sort of thing we look for out here, the same way that we pay attention to the number of woolly worms in the fall to give us a clue about the coming winter.  The geese, I can assure you, know something that Larry and I do not, and the geese are on their way back home.

<<<>>>

The wild things are stirring.  Last night, as I filled the horse trough, hands going slightly numb through my gloves, I heard the barn owls call to one another.  One was behind me in the woods on the creek side.  The other was across the horse pasture in the woods towards the neighbor’s corn fields.  They cut through the silence with their call and reply, a sound I’ve gotten used to in my time out here on the ridge line.  I only occasionally see them, but they’ve been my neighbor’s for years.

I’ve started hearing the chorus of just a few plucky songbirds in the morning when I walk the lane to start my chores.   Most of them are relatively quiet through the winter.  By mid-summer they will make up an orchestra.

For now, I’m only hearing solitary notes, but the song is coming.  The song and the bluebells are on their way.

 

 

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The Polar Vortex and a Lesson in Control

“Ok,” I said, “tell me why this wouldn’t work.”

John, God bless the man, was standing in my chicken coop with an ice breaker, chipping away at the mass of chicken shit and ice that was preventing the coop door from closing.

He looked over before replying.

“Tell you why what wouldn’t work…?”

“What if, instead of creating a horse stall in the center aisle, we bed it down, close the aisle off on one end, and let all the llamas in there.  Then we could give the llama stall to four of the horses.”

The Polar Vortex was approaching with anticipated -55 degree wind chills (thank God for 10 day forecasts), and I had been racking my brain for the best way to shut all of the animals inside the main barn and out of the elements.  This was my third or fourth proposal and the one that I believed had the most potential.

“What about the hay you stored at the end of the aisle?” he asked.

“Let them eat hay!” I replied.

<<<>>>

I spent three days getting myself and the barn (and my house, and the guesthouse) ready for the onslaught of cold.  Last Monday evening, I moved the llamas, shut in the ponies, battened down the chicken coop, bribed the cats to stay in the tack room, and brought in only partially willing horses.  (You know what isn’t much fun?  Trying to catch an off-the-track thoroughbred race horse in the dark, through a foot and a half of snow, who has no interest in being caught.)

I fed extra hay.  I triple checked stall locks.  I prepped, and prepped, and prepped, but as I turned off the barn lights that first night, and the weather closed in, I still wondered how the next few days would play out.

Those who know me in real life know that I have some issues with control.  I plan.  I research.  I try to micromanage my life and create something that I can exert my will upon.  I want there to be reasons for things, and I want to know all of those reasons.  (And, frankly, I want to be able to argue with those reasons if I disagree with them.)

I struggle with both anxiety and depression (the uppers and downers of mental health).  Neither condition is debilitating for me; I have relatively mild doses of each, and it’s uncommon for the depression to get so bad that I don’t want to get out of bed or for the anxiety to get so bad that it feels like my skin is crawling and that I want to scream, but they still exist as realities in my life.  (Side note, did you know that “The Scream” by Edvard Munch likely depicted the artist’s panic attack?  I used to not get the painting, but now, I FEEL it.)  Sometimes I think they combine and create an unnatural need to control my environment under the false belief that if I control things enough I can keep bad things from happening.

Maybe.

…It’s a thought.

I could hear the wind howling as I laid in bed Monday night.  It cuts off of the river in the winter, straight up the hills and across the ranch, bringing a stinging, icy chill.   I laid in bed, trying to reassure myself that I had done everything I could, that the weather would come regardless, and that what happened from here was beyond my control.

My anxiety whispered in my ear that night as I tried to sleep, creating a parade of imaginary problems that marched in front of me one by one.

“What if all the water lines freeze?”
“What if one of the animals freeze?”
“What if one of the animals gets sick?”
“What if one of the gates get unlocked?”
“What if one of the critters die?”
“WHAT IF ALL THE CRITTERS DIE???”
“WHAT IF I SLIP ON THE ICE ON THE WAY TO THE BARN, AND I HIT MY HEAD, AND I FREEZE AND DIE???”

*Pause*
*Deep breath*

“What if absolutely everything I’m worried about right now is beyond my control?  What if I can’t do a damn thing about it?  What if I try to get some sleep?”

<<<>>>

The next morning, with straight temps hovering around -20, I made my way back out to the barn.  The llamas had obviously had a party in their center stall, and enjoyed the access that living in the center of the barn gave them to my goings on.  They constantly pushed the not-quite-shut feed-room door open to check on me while I was in there.

About half of my autowaterers had frozen up, and I spent half the morning hanging and filling water buckets to replace them.   But everyone was mostly ok.  We spent the next few days doing mostly ok.  Mostly ok, but bored.  Mostly ok, but stir crazy.  Mostly ok, but chilled.  Mostly ok with deathly cold just on the other side of the barn door didn’t seem so bad.

<<<>>>

Last week, I reopened the barn to the combined rejoicing of everyone who had been shut inside.  Two days ago, I found one of my chickens dead in the coop.  My vet supposed her to be a victim of the cold.  A delayed victim, but a victim nonetheless.

“Her body probably couldn’t recover from the shock,” she told me when I mentioned my one casualty.

I cradled the hen’s dead body in one arm and hiked out into the woods a ways.  That’s what I do with them; it’s become a weird ritual for me.  I laid her behind a tree, far enough away from my barn that she won’t draw attention to my living birds, and I said a quick thank you; my hens do a job for me that I like to acknowledge.

Something–a raccoon or bobcat or coyote–will take her body and eat it.  Nothing will be  wasted.

<<<>>>

Livestock teach you to take 100% responsibility, while acknowledging your complete lack of control.     It’s a hard lesson, this realization that all the planning in the world can’t guarantee an outcome, the realization that the world spins on in its own way regardless of our intentions for it.

It’s also lovely, because sometimes acknowledging your smallness reminds you to settle into it and let go of your illusion of control.

When the cold comes, you do the best you can and let go of the rest.  Settle in, and know that warmer air is on its way.

 

 

 

 

Winter, Christmas Trees, and a Little Bit of Unexpected Magic

There needs to be a setting on my Fitbit for “walking through the snow in coveralls.” Regular steps seem wholly inadequate for the trudge that takes me between the house and the barns each morning and evening. Something between walking and swimming would do nicely I think…

The ranch has been blanketed with snow for the better part of a week.  Everything takes a little extra effort.  Waterers require heaters.  Three of my llamas are wearing coats.  One is being supplemented with grain.  The chickens are being fed black oil sunflower seeds for extra calories in addition to their regular food.  Stalls are getting messier, faster.  And, of course, there’s the two pair of socks and coverall wearing trudge.

This is the time of year that always makes farmers, ranchers, critter enthusiastic hobbyists, and almost farmgirls question our own sanity.

It’s too cold for humans,  we proclaim, tucked safely under our covers, dreading the moment that our feet hit the floor and our day begins in earnest.

It’s too cold for critters, we decide, putting a coat on an animal who, in the wild, definitely wouldn’t be wearing a coat.

It’s too cold for water, we somewhat insanely argue, as we pull a puck-like chunk of ice off the waterer whose heater isn’t keeping up.

Why do I do this?  The question rattles around in the empty spaces created by all of the cold.

Things break. Animals shiver.  Our faces get chapped by the frigid air, and our toes go just a little numb in our boots when we forget to put on two pairs of socks.

The ancients used to bring evergreens into their homes in the winter as an act of sympathetic magic.  (It’s where we get our Christmas trees, actually.)  It was a reminder that spring and summer would come again.    The greenery provided comfort against their stark, harsh world of cold and dark and white.   It was reminder of the renewal that was waiting for them just under the surface of the snow.

I get it.

Last weekend, my boyfriend and I decorated my tree.  We chose a little beauty from my hay supplier’s tree lot.  It is on the smaller side, a cute little Fraser fir, but it is full, and well-branched, and lovely.  Everything I look for in a Christmas tree.   My hay guy gave it to me for free, insisting that I paid enough for hay throughout the year to merit a free Christmas tree, and it is standing in my sunroom smelling a little bit like heaven.

sympathetic magic

John strung the lights, and I pulled out my collection of ornaments while we waited on the most recent blizzard.   He built a fire in the fireplace.  We opened a bottle of wine, and I took my yearly walk down memory lane, choosing ornaments from my collection that seemed especially meaningful.  I added a few this year.  I put a few in a donation box whose meaning no longer felt dear to me (several of them commemorating milestones with my ex husband).

We sipped wine and cuddled up with the cats for the rest of the evening, enjoying our little bit of magic with it’s glittering ornaments and fairy lights.  I ventured out in my pajamas and coveralls with a flashlight in hand as the sleet turned to snow to bring the horses in from the field.

As the ice stung my face, I briefly wondered why I feel so pulled to this place and this work.  Then the horses made their way into the barn, bits of snow clinging to their long eyelashes and against their manes and tails.  The ponies nickered from their stall, wondering if perhaps it wasn’t time for second dinner.  The llamas hummed softly from across the aisle, munching hay from the nets I had refilled earlier that day.

I made my way back to the house, back to my boyfriend, back to the dogs and cats I share my home with, back to the warm fire, and the tree that awaited me with it’s sympathetic magic, and I realized that the barn was full of magic of its own. The creatures there reminding me, in their own way, that we are all in this together.  That we are connected to one another and to the seasons as they come and go.  That the snow and the cold and the chill are both temporary and beautiful.

I settled into the couch next to John and sipped my glass of red wine.

It was quiet.  The lights on the tree glittered through and shone against the ornaments.  The fire crackled.  Renewal waits on the other side of this season, on the other side of the snow, and the cold will pass.  For now though, I will steel myself against the cold, enjoy the quiet moments, and try to pay attention to the magic.

The one about the duckling I hid in my cleavage.

You know that moment?

The one that comes when you are trying desperately to be professional?

To pass for a calm, cool, collected businessperson?  Perhaps while you’re at a bank, finishing a nearing six-figure aircraft deal, providing closing instructions to a banker on behalf of your client?

And then the wild duckling that you have hidden in your cleavage starts peeping?

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That’s us.  In the bank.

Don’t you just hate that? Continue reading “The one about the duckling I hid in my cleavage.”

Take Me Home Country Roads

My commute to the office usually takes about twenty-five minutes.  It’s two-lane, country driving the entire way along one of the Illinois’ River Roads.  My landmarks as I drive are a railroad crossing, a bald eagle nest, and a couple of roadside picnic benches.  There usually isn’t much traffic, but you do have to watch for deer.  Especially during the rut.

This time of year, I watch for turtles.  So far, I’ve stopped and given a crossing assist to five of them, parking along the roadside with my hazards flashing.  (Only one peed on me…but that’s a different story.) Continue reading “Take Me Home Country Roads”

Spring

I just found hay in my hair, a memento from the time I spent in the horse field this afternoon lying on my back in what remained of a round bale. It’s sixty degrees.  Just a few days ago, there was snow on the ground.  Spring is like that here.

Unpredictable.

Fickle.

Unruly.

(Not unlike my hair now that I think about it.) Continue reading “Spring”

Sitting in the Sacred

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.
~Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh

It’s still warm enough for crickets to chirp their song at the end of the day, but only just.  Our fall colors are still flirting with the green of summer.  Fall happens slowly here.  You almost miss it, sandwiched between our Midwestern summers and winters which compete every year to be fiercer than the other.  Fall is quiet.  Unlike the famous colors out east, our colors don’t come all at once.   We entertain shades of gold and green and red in the same moment.  Oranges like pumpkins.  Scarlet like the lips of emboldened women.  Yellow leaves reminiscent of gold jewelry worn to be noticed and envied.  All of this beside the slow trees that cling to their chlorophyll, still green into November.  Even lovelier for their slow and steady, almost cautious, pace.

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Continue reading “Sitting in the Sacred”

Trees and Sunsets

I am the sort of person who has favorite trees.  I’ve always found trees to be a little bit magical, a piece of the past that roots into the future.  When I was a little girl, one of my favorite trees was the willow tree in our backyard (the namesake of our lane). Now, though I have many trees that I love, one of my absolute favorites is my backyard western pine.

Very few types of evergreen trees are actually native to Illinois.  If you see them here, it’s usually because they were planted, or perhaps their parent tree was planted.  They grow tall and lovely, and can rival the height of the native oaks and maples, but they don’t reach their true potential they way they would if they had rooted in their native soil. Continue reading “Trees and Sunsets”

Compassion in Tension

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. Continue reading “Compassion in Tension”