“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.
…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???”
“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.