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.

 

 

 

 

A post about ponies!

 

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Four years and two days ago, my ex-husband and I loaded up two tiny ponies and brought them home to stay.  One was a little, palomino filly with a deep love of cuddles, and one was a little, chestnut colt with an attitude that outpaced his stature.  They were an anniversary gift from my ex-husband (probably the best gift he ever gave me), adopted from one of my favorite animal rescues, Guardian Oak in Moberly, Missouri.  

Both had been rescued from the New Holland auction with their mothers.  I met them originally when they were just a few months old.  They were as cute as buttons and so small my ex picked them up to trim their hooves.  

Rescues get a bad rap, especially in the equine world, where, admittedly, taking on a poorly behaved or unsocialized animal can be dangerous. But these two, under the care of Sherri Crider, her family, and her volunteers, were well-socialized from the start and have always been exceptionally good for me.  (Well, I mean, Slash did go through a visit the neighbors phase that I probably could have done without…and he does occasionally have Napoleon Complex moments like any self-respecting pony, but that’s just his pony power showing through.) Continue reading “A post about ponies!”

On Shearing and Doing Hard Things

This is me.

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This is me on an almost 90 degree day, after shearing nine of my llamas over the course of about two hours.

This is me sweaty and exhausted.  Covered in tiny bits of wool.  Thoroughly uncomfortable

And thrilled that my animals were cool again. Continue reading “On Shearing and Doing Hard Things”

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”

Letting “Good Enough” be Good Enough: The stalls won’t always be clean…and that’s ok

I’ve started this blog post three times.  Each time, Amelia, one of my three dogs, shoves her nose under my elbow and nudges my arm, asking for attention.  Each time, my fingers lose their space on the keyboard; I backspace and start over.  One of those times, my puppy, Rose, joins in, but in her poor “puppy” form, she makes the mistake of grabbing my hand in her mouth (albeit gently), resulting in a reprimand.

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They give up, bored, and curl up on their beds across the room.  I’m granted a moment to myself, and I keep typing. Continue reading “Letting “Good Enough” be Good Enough: The stalls won’t always be clean…and that’s ok”

Living the Dream

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I forgot to step tall over the hot wire.

I felt my rubber muck boot catch the bottom wire of the horse fence.  My ankle caught the strand that I had strung there this summer.  My knees hit the snow.  The five gallon bucket I had been filling at the spigot fell forward out of my hands and spilled into the stark, white snow, soaking my hands through my gloves, emptying in a mockery of the small task I was trying to accomplish.

I was wearing too many layers to injure myself in the fall: my legs were insulated against their snowy landing spot by two pairs of pants and a pair of heavy duty coveralls.  Rather, the -15 degree windchill made the possibility of frostbite through my wet gloves my most pressing concern.  I stood up slowly–the only possible way to stand in coveralls–and, swearing at the wind or the weather or my own clumsiness, began to refill the bucket.  Ponies need water.  It is my job to make sure they have it, whether the process for getting it is pleasant or not. Continue reading “Living the Dream”

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”

When Phoenix Came to Stay

 

“So…There’s this horse…”

I was lying on my bed in the middle of the afternoon-a weekend in early May of 2016-feeling extraordinarily lazy, and watching my ceiling fan spin circles above me.  I held my phone to my ear and listened as Jeremiah began to explain the plight of a unfortunate four-year-old desert bred Arabian gelding who had been injured in a pasture accident.  The injury was deemed “career ending” for the young gelding, once an exceptionally promising and talented performance prospect, and the decision was made to put him down.  He was three-legged lame, currently residing in a stall awaiting his appointment for euthanasia after x-rays revealed that he had torn much of the connective tissue in his lower right front leg.  He only had a few days before the vet would be back out.

Through an unlikely chain of events (involving the horse’s previous owner, an unexpected shoeing appointment, and a brief conversation with the consulting vet), the gelding, named Phoenix, had made his way onto Jeremiah’s radar.  Jeremiah had known Phoenix’s mother and was the farrier for Phoenix’s previous owner.  He was just connected enough to the horse to be interested, and he started making phone calls to get to the bottom of the situation. Continue reading “When Phoenix Came to Stay”

Sunshine, Twisters, and Thunderstorms

“There is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside of it.”
– George Elliot, Middlemarch.

February

It isn’t as warm as yesterday, but I cannot call it cold.  As of morning chores, the thermometer was flirting with 50 degrees, unseasonably warm for Midwestern Februarys.   Walking to the barn in just a sweatshirt is a rare treat.  The day is overcast; my weather app tells me that it will drop back down into the 30s tomorrow.

The squirrels seems to be celebrating this momentary gift of warmth. I watch two of them flitting through the trees like little furry ninjas, taking aerial leaps from tree to tree, branch to branch, that I wouldn’t have thought possible.  I can’t help but laugh aloud, pausing for several minutes to stand and watch them as they chitter back and forth, oblivious to my presence.

The horses, llamas, ponies, alpacas, chickens, and even barn cats are likewise “feeling their oats.”  They all seems especially enthusiastic today; whether playing or eating or just napping in the sun, they are going about their business with a little bit of sunshine in their step.  So am I.

It’s temporary; I know, but when February gives you light, you let that light in.

March

The day has been gray.  The weather forecast warned me that rain is likely, but things are warm and dry as I go about most of my day, and I forget about the impending squall.  The text from my mother warning me about the oncoming storm stops me in the middle of cooking dinner; I run to the barn, hoping to settle the animals in for the night before the thunderstorm makes it to the ranch.  The storm begins to blow in as I run up the barn lane. My solitary set of winds chimes tolls a panicked warning; they ring out loud and angry and dissonant.  The same wind rattles my aluminum gates in their hinges, creaking and crashing.  The trees swayed back and forth, deep roots digging in against the front coming out of the west.  I wonder briefly if any of them will fall.

Rain comes down cold and heavy on my shoulders as I roll open my barn doors and begin ticking chores off my list.  Shut the barn cats inside their tack room.  Shut the chickens into their coop.

Sirens begin blaring as I fill hay nets.  That means that a tornado has been sighted in the county.  I glance outside; the sky bares no tell-tale signs of a twister. The heavens are angry, to be sure, but dark gray, not green.  The wind is frenzied.  My Midwestern upbringing has taught me that the sky to worry about is a calm green one.  I glance at my weather app and confirm that the touch down was on the other side of the county, miles and miles away.  I make hasty work of the last few hay nets, and, comfortable that everyone is as well set to weather the storm as I can make them, I run back through the downpour to the comfort of the house.

The sounds of the storm wake me several times throughout the night.  Hail pinging on a metal roof, thunder crashing in the distance, wind and rain railing against every corner of the house as the winds shift direction.  I lie in bed and pray for my creatures, hoping they have the sense to go inside.  Hoping that no trees fall and take down fences.  Hoping no more twisters are born of this storm system.  I fall back asleep as the rain continues down.

April

April showers are said to bring May flowers, but so far they are only bringing me mud.  The two horses in the main barn have churned up their paddock so badly that I have ankle deep mud to contend with every time I have to get to the chicken coop.  Of course, that’s inconvenient, but the bigger problem is the way they tend to slip around.  I picture them falling, and worry that someone will get hurt…whether that someone would be one of them, or me, is yet to be seen.  I decide to move them in with the other horses in the back pasture to keep all of us safer.

My world is wet and damp.  The rain is unrelenting from the end of March through the first part of April.  Everything is more difficult in the mud, from chores every morning to keeping my tile floors clean against the dogs’ muddy paws.  The mud makes me irrationally angry every time I have to slog through it. There’s a crack in my rubber boots that lets cold, mucky water in when I step.  I really need to replace those…

If I were to begin building an ark up here, high on the ridge above the Illinois River, no one would even blink.  The animals barely step out of the barn, and they are as cranky as I am.  The forecast says that the rain will end soon, but it feels like it will keep falling down forever.

The daffodils are up along the farm road.  Yellow and bright against the new green grass that I’ve been waiting for.  The sun is out, and the animals spend their time outside.  They are decidedly happier than they have been in weeks.  I still need to replace those boots, but the mud is no longer deep enough to seep in through the crack.  Things are warming up, sprouting up, waking up, and coming to life all around me.  The warm weather wakes me up too.  Months of cold and damp and dark are coming to an end.  I feel lighter.  The anger from the mud is wearing off as things dry.  Of course, the storms will still come–they always do–but when April give you light, you let that light in.

A little bit of kindness and a tiny chicken

Let me be crystal clear: I didn’t NEED any more chickens.  Cluckingham Palace is currently home to 11 laying chickens, 1 lavender turkey hen, and, of course, Arthur of Camelot.  I currently collect more eggs than I can personally use, and I’ve been pretty open about the fact that eggs cost more to raise than to buy.

I know all of these things, but I have a mild case of chicken math disorder…which is basically a psychological disorder, and every Spring I seem to manage to fill up a brooder.  There are some very reasonable arguments for doing so.  (Chickens lay fewer eggs as they age.  If you free-range, it is understood that you will lose an occasional hen to predators, etc.)  But, when you get right down to it,  I know that the real reason I keep buying chickens is that I like having chickens hanging around and that itty-bitty chicks are basically the cutest things ever in the history of all time; all of the other reasons are ancillary. Continue reading “A little bit of kindness and a tiny chicken”