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.
Actually, he did, until he didn’t anymore, but that’s a little beside the point.
That day last summer, the day that he yelled over the phone that the farm would kill me, that it was too much for me to do on my own, he was pretty clear on not wanting the farm.
I stood between my barns, acutely aware of everything that was broken or undone. Everything that required my time and my energy and my money. Everything that needed to be done that I didn’t know how to do. Tears ran down my cheeks, because his words left me with no future. Continue reading “I get by with a little help from my friends.”→
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 was the coldest, darkest part of winter, more than a year before we took over at the ranch. I was helping to keep an eye on things while the owners were away, doing evening chores and hanging out with a friend, Katie, who had come along to keep me company.
The night was quiet, so we heard the his cries from outside the shut barn door. Katie slid it open to find a battered-looking, black cat standing just out of reach. It was snowy, and he was cold. His inky fur was rough and made him stand in stark contrast to the snow. He held one foot above the cold ground, obviously wounded and infected. His right eye was swollen nearly shut, and despite his size–Kahn is a big cat–he was desperately underweight and looked very small. He continued to cry as we looked on, but skirted us. Nervous and scared but pleading for help. Continue reading “The Adventures of Kahn”→
Jeremiah pulled the covers back and kissed me goodbye at about 7:30. I was still in bed, unmotivated to get up and start my Sunday.
“I put fly masks on the horses and scrubbed the trough. The stalls are clean, and the water buckets are filled. The chickens are fed. The barn cats are let out. And don’t let our cats convince you to give them second breakfast” [for those of you who haven’t met them, our house cats are basically hobbits…] “because I just fed them too.”
I rolled over to say thank you when a rooster crowed in the distance, as though he knew he’d been left out.
“Oh, right,” Jeremiah continued, “I let the chickens out too.”
Jeremiah is gone a lot for work, especially lately, but when he has time, he does a sweep of the barn before leaving so that I don’t have to worry about such things immediately. He will be gone for four days, another trip east. This one is to outfit his shoeing trailer and ride with a fellow farrier for a few days. The last trip was for three clinics. The next will be for a clinic and a number of distant consult cases and closer client stops. While he’s gone I’m here with the creatures, and the property, and my job. Everyday looks like sixty-two creatures, two barns (eight stalls), one very big chicken coop, and that’s just before I go to work…
Usually, it’s fine. I love this place and these creatures, and, I’ve said it before, there is a certain zen to cleaning stalls that I have yet to find anywhere else except maybe a yoga studio. (Like yoga! But with manure!!!)
But, if I’m telling the truth, the yoke of this place is heavy, heavier to carry alone. And there is always uncertainty in it. The skid steer is broken right now. It needs five-hundred dollars worth of repairs. And we will get it done. We always do. But my car needs tires too, and the house needs a new roof desperately. And the propane bill is coming due…and, and, and… Continue reading “I can do hard things.”→
We pulled down the lane to sprawling pastures, rustic buildings. There was a pen full of horses to our right. The horses were screaming and running around like lunatics as two young handlers seemed to be working to catch them, or maybe just calm them down.
“That doesn’t look encouraging.”
Jeremiah shook his head no, exasperation apparent.
“Part of me just wants to turn around and leave now.”
We had just pulled into the drive at a local summer camp. A new client of Jeremiah’s, they had called for trims earlier in the week. He scheduled with them–seventeen local trims in an afternoon is nothing to sneeze at–but he was vaguely nervous about the whole experience. He last experience with summer camps had led him to a corral full of ill-behaved horses with completely green handlers. (And by that I mean that they literally had never worked with horses before. Ever.) He was concerned that this one would be the same, an accident just waiting to happen.
I came along just in case. If no one there knew how to hold a horse for trimming, I was there to pick up the slack and try to keep Jeremiah safe. I would be able to manage vaguely naughty animals, but if they were truly dangerous, we would leave.
They were screaming and carrying on as we pulled up next to the horse barn and parked alongside a beater truck that probably belonged to the camp. As we climbed out, we were introduced to the director of the equine program at camp. She was on the shorter side with long, dark hair. Only twenty years old, a fact that she kept apologizing for, she was the one in charge of the seventeen horses in the corral and soon to be in charge of all the children who would ride them. As we made introductions, I watch another girl, her helper, climb out of the horse pasture carrying a fawn.
The director glanced over.
“I’m so sorry about the horses. They were spooked by the fawn just a few minutes ago and took off running.”
I think Jeremiah may have breathed an audible sigh of relief at that. When spooked, even good horses sometimes behave badly.
I watched the helper carry the fawn to the shade.
“How’s Bambi?” I asked.
The director shook her head. “Bambi got trampled by the horses, and I think she has a broken leg. I don’t think she’ll make it.”
… Continue reading “Oh Honey.”→
So, out here in the Midwest Springtime means a lot of things: Warmer weather. Longer days. Allergies (or is that one more just me?). And… mushroom season.
Morel Mushrooms are wild, and delicious, and native. Unlike their cousins that you find in supermarkets, they’re almost impossible to cultivate. If you have a taste for them, you have to search them out in the woods (or pay roughly $50 a pound for them…).
I’m a very casual mushroom hunter. I’m thrilled when I find them, but I kind of just use them as an excuse to disappear into the woods for an hour or two. There are other people who nearly make a religion out of the hunt, paying homage to the mushroom god Morel and telling tales of their encounters time and time again. The pilot lounge at the airport (where I work) has been abuzz with rumors of sightings for the last week. So I thought I’d check things out.
Jeremiah thinks I’m nuts…or that I’m going to poison myself. I keep telling him that no other mushroom can be mistaken for a morel, but I’m not sure he believes me.
I changed into long sleeves and threw on a hat. Jeremiah asked me if it was my mushroom hunting hat; I said that it’s my “I really hate ticks and don’t want them in my hair” hat. He seemed astonished.
“Ticks? In your hair?”
Apparently, with his flat-top haircut, this is unheard of. But I’m not crazy, right? Getting ticks in your hair is totally a thing.
I took off down our back road, wandering past the llama barn where the llamas paid me no mind.
In fact, no one paid me any mind…except my sweet old man, Cinco.
Cinco followed me along the fence line of the horse pasture, stopping in front of me to request some of the long grass that had grown up along the other side of the fence (where the grass really is greener…).
Then I popped out to look at the site of my future outdoor arena. I knew I wouldn’t find any mushrooms there, but I like to wander out and stare at it sometimes. And dream about the day when we can afford to haul in the materials to finish it.
And dream about all the time I will spend riding my ponies under the pines.
Isn’t it lovely?
Then, since all quests need a villain, and this mushroom quest is no different, I present to you POISON IVY!
My husband is prone to mayhem. I’m not sure why (though I do have a theory that’s loosely based on the Percy Jackson novels) but weird things happen to him, or around him, almost daily. (Want an example? He’s been dead three times…) Nothing surprises me anymore.
So, Monday morning, as we drove out towards the highway on our way to Wildlife Prairie State Park with an injured Turkey Vulture in the backseat, I found myself in a state of disbelief that this felt so completely normal. And when the vulture sharted on my backseat cover, I just took another sip of my coffee. We rolled the back windows down. And we kept trucking.
We called the Turkey Vulture Dante. Jeremiah had nearly hit him with my Jetta the day before; the poor thing had been stumbling around a road, nearly blind and dazed by a brush with an automobile. Jeremiah had watched him in the rearview mirror for a few moments before stopping the car and going back for him.
“Well, sometimes God puts obstacles in your way that are rather hard to avoid. Like, you will take out the ditch trying to avoid them kind of obstacles. Everyone, I would like you to meet my obstacle of the day, the injured and blind turkey vulture that wandered out into the road. His name is Dante, and we will traveling together today.”
He gave Dante his lunch and they began the drive back to the ranch together.
On the ride home, Jeremiah learned some new vulture facts. For example, when a vulture poops in your car, the only course of action is to evacuate the vehicle…and wait. Also, vultures (or maybe just Dante) grow agitated when listening to Taylor Swift, but they chill out and jam to Johnny Cash. (They listened to Johnny Cash all the way home after making this discovering, because no matter how much you enjoy listening to “Blank Space,” it isn’t worth an agitated vulture in the backseat.)
Jeremiah planned to find a rehabilitator or rescue for Dante, but it was Sunday evening, so the search had to wait until the next day. In the meantime, Jeremiah laid down some straw in our feed room, hooked up a heat light, and gave Dante some food and water. We left him there through the night, basking soundly in the glow of the heat lamp.
I know this may sound strange, but I’m a fan of vultures. A few years ago, I attended a information session about birds of prey that featured some rehabilitated birds. Though not nearly as striking as the eagles or the owls, the turkey vultures stole the show. They were funny and interactive and seemed to really enjoy showing off for the people. Vultures get a bad rap, but they serve a vital purpose in the ecosystem. Rather than kill prey, these birds feed on what has already died. Their digestive systems sanitize what they eat, preventing the spread of disease throughout a population. They are nature’s clean up crew, and they really are very cool animals.
The next morning, Jeremiah began the search for a rehabilitator, planning to look locally first, then start to work through a list that my blogger friend over at Day by Day the Farm Girl Way sent me. Fortunately, Wildlife Prairie Park (less than an hour away) agreed to take him, so we loaded him up in the backseat and drove out.
We pulled around at the front entrance where they were expecting us. They had a small kennel set up for Dante, where he would wait until their bird keeper picked him up. We made a small cash donation towards his care and left, feeling grateful that someone was willing to give him a shot.
Unfortunately, Dante had to be euthanized later that day. He had more injuries than we knew, and he went into seizures. I was saddened by the news, but glad that Jeremiah had picked him up off the road, that the old guy hadn’t died slowly on the side of the highway, scared and confused. The night Dante spent in the barn, it had brutally stormed. Trees came down; thunder crashed so loudly that I woke halfway through the night. And I was glad that the old guy was tucked in safe and sound and warm. Even though no one could have saved him, we helped make his last night far more comfortable, and that is something that all God’s creatures deserve.
I emailed my blogger friend when I found out that Dante was euthanized. I knew I would post about it, and I wanted to tell her via email before she read about it on my blog.
I wrote, saying,
“I plan on posting about this whole experience, but I wanted to let you know first. We got an update from wildlife that they humanely euthanized Dante yesterday. He was apparently very old (the zoologist used the word ancient) for a vulture, and he had a head trauma. By the time she saw him, he was having seizures. There was nothing they could do beyond give him a peaceful end.
I wish it would have turned out better, but I’m glad he didn’t die alone, terrified, and confused by the side of the road. There was a massive storm across the Midwest the night he stayed with us, and he got to spend it in a dry room with a heat lamp instead of dying in a ditch.
Thank you for your help. Thank you mostly for your reassurance that we did the right thing.”
Her reply was sweet and thoughtful. I asked her permission to share it with you.
“Cherity, I’m so sorry. I had a feeling he might have been old by the looks of his head. I’m also not surprised at his injury. Many large birds are hit while feasting on roadkill. Especially this time of year when parents are looking to feed their young. Forrest and I have transported many male owls and hawks to WildCare during the spring and summer months… hit by vehicles. I suspect since the males do most of the feeding of the young and the female (after the eggs hatch), they are very busy looking for meat to feed all of those mouths!
Dante was a magnificent bird… and you and Jeremiah are fortunate to have shared in the last of his life’s experience. You are the benefactors, and his life was not lived in vain (not that it would have been in vain at all – we are all here for the experience of knowing God/Universe). When you write about him, and your experience, you will have made his life all the more influential on humans. It was his gift to mankind to be a cleanser of the earth all of his life… and in the end, he was a gift for all of us, to understand showing kindness to those who need our help.
I believe that animals/birds/all life forms, read or sense energy. Dante knew the kindness of humans. He felt your touch, and your energy. Wouldn’t that be the best way to have the ending of life here on planet Earth? To know the kindness and love of another? Gentle hands placed on you with soft words and a sense of being cared for? When Jeremiah removed Dante from the chaos and terror of the pavement, he had to have known or sensed that something greater was happening. He probably knew his end was near… and death was imminent, but because of the kindness of you and your husband, and the people at the wildlife rescue, he knew goodness and kindness.
I am so proud of both you and Jeremiah. Thank you for including me in this experience. I look forward to reading your blog post about Dante. It is a beautiful story that should be shared with others.”
My husband was asked why he bothered to pick up a wounded buzzard. Jeremiah simply replied, “Because God put him in my way.” I think God puts opportunities to show kindness in our way, and I think Dante was one of those opportunities. And no kindness is ever wasted, even if it is just shown to a wounded buzzard.
The sky is blue fading black. Snow blankets the ground. Not deep snow, but enough to cover the mud and the muck and the browned out remnants of fall and summer. It’s unmolested, still a perfect shimmering white reflecting the brightest stars, the ones that manage to shine out between the wispy clouds. The light of the moon is mirrored by the snow covered earth, giving the entire outdoors an other-earthly feel. It’s stunning beyond the ability of pictures to capture.
… And it’s so damn cold your boogers will freeze right on your face.
Weather in the Midwest is notoriously unstable. Lately, we’ve had swings of 40 degrees or so several times a week. Most of the animals are handling it fairly well, but the older among them are having some difficultly with the extremes. Couple that with a string of bad luck, and it’s been a weird couple of weeks seemingly living in reaction to the realities of the ranch.
Since just before Christmas, I’ve had three sick llamas (two with infections and one with an upset tummy), one lame llama (who stood up when her foot was asleep and pulled a muscle), two lame horses (stone bruising due to the quick deep freeze), two lame cats, a lacerated dog requiring stitches, and an injured husband. I just came inside from the barn a few moments ago, sick myself with a nasty cough, after dealing with a llama who somehow managed to choke on crumbled grain…(Don’t ask; I have no idea.)
It was while I was walking toward the barn, mostly preoccupied with helping the choking animal Jeremiah had called to report, that I noticed the wild and untamable winter beauty of the place. It was on the way back from the other barn, with thirty mile an hour winds and a temperature of seven degrees, that I realized, pretty or not, the cold will cut through you like a knife and freeze exposed skin with a chill that somehow burns. (And your boogers, as mentioned, it will also freeze your boogers.)
This ranch is a lot like the cold, beautiful and harsh, sometimes in almost equal measure.
Llamas are usually a pretty hearty bunch, but our herd is aging. Nearly all of them are north of ten years old; several are flirting with twenty. In the past couple of weeks, mostly right around the holidays, we’ve had three vet visits to deal with the issues of various critters (one cat, one dog, one llama).
We sometimes jokingly refer to the ranch as the llama nursing home. It’s one of those jokes that’s only funny because it’s true. This summer, we had a bout of strange behavior that led both Jeremiah and I to believe that several animals were heading downhill, that they wouldn’t be with us much longer. We watched them closely and changed their diet. We put in a superbly expensive water filtration system (that eliminated the heavy metals that were disturbingly prevalent in the well). And they bounced back, but we continue to watch.
I don’t think it’s the trials themselves that make ranch life harsh, or the work. I am no stranger to hard work, nor is my husband. I think it’s the knowledge that whatever you do, out here you will eventually lose the fight. After all, as often as not, the fight is against time itself.
It’s a common saying amongst ranch people: “If you’re gunna have livestock, you’re gunna have deadstock.” My cousin and uncle who run a dairy farm and have lost far too many calves this year have muttered that adage the same way I do when one of our critters gets sick, the way I did last year when we lost two alpacas to the cold and the damp. I’ve been saying it since I was fourteen years old.
But the saying is just a saying when you watch animals you care about get sick. Last week, the three sick llamas were three of my favorites. Even though I know I will lose animals, that these creatures won’t be around forever, I was ready to raze hell for those three. Fortunately, all but one has fully recovered, and I think the last will be all better in a few days. Still, for a little while there, I felt like Molly Weasley taking on Bellatrix Lastrange in the last Harry Potter book, screaming “Not my daughter, you bitch!” Except in my case I wasn’t facing a Death Eater, just time and illness, screaming “Not my pets, you bitch!”
I know for a lot of you it probably seems strange to be so attached to such creatures; even I would have found myself less upset by everything if it had only been one, but three of my favorite animals in as many days was rough even by my standards.
However, for now, all is well. The llamas and alpacas and ponies are tucked in snug in their stalls with blankets and heat lamps as necessary. The barn doors and stall doors are shut tight against the wind and the chill. They have more hay to munch than they probably need for the night. The chickens are likewise warm in their coop, the barn cats in their tack room, even the feral kitty is tucked into the hayloft. The big horses in the back field are fluffed up with their winter coats (all four of them resembling equine Yetis). Jeremiah and I are in the house with the house pets, the dogs curled up in front of the hearth. Most everyone is well, or on the way to being well.
I know that this place with always have the bitter mixed with the sweet, that it will likely always be beautiful and harsh in equal measure, but I also know that it’s worth it. The land is worth it, the house is worth it, and, more than anything else, the animals are worth every bit of heartbreak that I will ever feel on their behalf.
So it is with that thought that I look forward, into next year, into the next stage of things.
In a place like this, in a life like mine, you must learn to take the bad with the good. But guys? There is so much good to go around.