Miracles and Paradise

Sunday:

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…

The tune lilts through my head as I look around the house, but while there is probably a tree in the grand hotel, and while friends have been sending me pictures of their trees and decorations, my house…well, so far it’s slightly less than festive.

I know.  I know.  My last post outlined my determination to really be ready for the holiday this year.  I was to have all my shopping and gift wrapping done by now…and all the decorating…and even have cookie dough mixed up and waiting in the freezer for cookie making, ready for my now highly efficient self to commence with the baking.  Instead, I have a tree up in the living room with no decorations (yet), about two-thirds of my gifts purchased and none of them wrapped, and a couple of packages of sugar cookie dough in the cupboard ready to mix up in the next few weeks because really the fun part is the decorating anyway…

And I’m sitting on my couch sipping coffee just now, with barn chores in my near future, realizing that today is the first day all week without anything specific on the calendar.  No work.  No grading.  No event that I signed up for while feeling extroverted that I begin to regret as soon as my introverted brain kicks in again.  I just know this, tonight, John and I will finally decorate the tree…very gingerly with our most durable ornaments that the kitten hopefully won’t be able to break.  

This life is chaos.  Sometimes it’s controlled, and often it isn’t, but, right now, it feels a little bit like Paradise.

<<<>>>

November was more chaotic than usual.

If you follow almostfarmgirl on Facebook or Instagram, you already know about our latest rescue and source of chaos, Miracle Max.

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Max had the dual misfortune of being orphaned at birth and being owned by idiots.  At two weeks old, having bottle fed him in the house since his birth, his breeders decided to put him up for sale… for $500.  

Let me be clear: a two-week old, bottle-fed llama cria is not worth a dollar, especially a two-week old, bottle-fed cria with questionable breeding and no papers, but I digress.

Anyway, the owners put him up for sale on Facebook, commenting that he “loves attention and hanging out with us.  He will follow us anywhere doesn’t matter if we are inside or outside,” and the post was immediately very popular and littered with two sorts of comments.  There were the less experienced people who thought raising a bottled cria (baby llama) would be all sorts of fun. “Oh look how cute he is!!!” over and over.  Then there were the experienced llama handlers who were generally horrified.  My friend, Elizabeth, was among the later group.

Most people don’t realize this, but bottle fed crias are notoriously difficult to raise: far more difficult than a goat or a calf or even a horse (and horses have their own challenges).  The reasons for this are many, including the fact that they need to be fed every 2-3 hours or so around the clock, but one of the big ones is that bottle fed cria are prone to developing Aberrant Behavior Syndrome (or ABS… otherwise known as Berserk Male Syndrome).  When they are inappropriately socialized with people, specifically when they are over socialized or coddled as babies to the point that they fail to recognize the difference between other llamas and people, they basically lose their minds.  The females are bad enough; the males are nightmares.  Bottle raising any cria, but especially a male, is not for the faint of heart, or the inexperienced, or for anyone who is inclined to ignore warnings and make a pet of the poor thing while it’s tiny and extra cute.  (Saying in the ad that he loved attention and followed them everywhere was a huge red flag for how things would go if left in his original owners’ care.)

Elizabeth messaged me the posting and asked if I had room for him.

Did I have space in the barn?  Sure.  But I knew the question was more about space in my life and my head than it was about space in the barn.

The answer, as usual, was no.  And yes.  And no.

I can’t save them all.

Even as I write that, it stings a little.  It reminds me that there’s an invisible line out the door of all the creatures and people whose pain I can’t alleviate.  The world is big, and people are cruel.  I am small.

And yet, I firmly believe that we are sent that which is supposed to be ours, and somehow I always know when I see the creatures who have been sent to me.

I knew when Jiminy’s photo showed up, from Pennsylvania, as he stood in a kill lot waiting to ship to Canada.  I knew when my friend posted Miss Rosie Posie after her daughter found her in a ditch in Texas.  And I knew when I saw this tiny cria.

There is a voice somewhere deep down inside that says, “This one, darling.  This one will hold a piece of your heart.”

So I said yes.

Therein began a two day long saga of getting the little guy home.  The owner refused to take a penny less than $500, telling us that there was a petting zoo that wanted him if we didn’t.  (I  cannot think of a worse situation for a bottle fed cria, or a more dangerous situation for the public, than placing him in a petting zoo.)  Truthfully, neither Elizabeth or I had ready access to $500 to throw at a rescue, not really, but, since I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t try, I told her to commit to buying him.  I would figure the money out later.

Later that day, the owner reported that the baby had died.  Rescue off.  Later still, he realized that he had mistaken a stillborn baby on the ground for the bottle baby he had been feeding for two weeks.  Rescue back on.

Two days later, with $500 borrowed from various sources I usually don’t touch, including my hay fund, and an online appeal for help hopefully crowdfunding his ransom and the associated bills I knew would be coming, Elizabeth and her husband purchased the little guy.  They drove him home where I was waiting with a new dog coat, lots of goats milk, a shot of antibiotics, and my little herd of mamas and babies, who were shut in a stall and exceptionally confused.

I saw him and heard that little voice again.  “This one.”

Rescue, like life, never has guaranteed outcomes.  You never know what you’ll encounter. What will come up.  Health issues.  Behavioral issues.  You just do it, because it’s the right thing to do.  Because something in you tells you to jump even when you can’t see the net.

I wasn’t quite sure what to name him until I saw him.  Originally, I had thought “Little Orphan Andy” (for obvious reasons) or “King’s Ransom” (because the $500 we paid for him was basically ransom money), but neither of those names quite fit.  Honestly, it came down to this: I didn’t want his entire life to be defined by being an orphan if I could help it, and, as cute as he is, he is never quite going to look like a “King.”

I landed, instead, on “Miracle Max,” partly because I went in hoping for miracles with this guy (and so far, by the way, I’ve gotten them), partly because Elizabeth and I found ourselves referencing Miracle Max from The Princess Bride during the whole “is he dead or alive” debacle, and, honestly, partly because one of the best dogs I’ve ever known was named Max.  I thought naming the cria Max might invite my dearly departed, dog Max to look out for the little dude from heaven, and dog Max would make an exceptionally good guardian angel and namesake.

I put Max in a dog jacket, fed him straight away with a warmed up mixture of 2/3 goat’s milk and 1/3 water.   His wool felt like spun cotton under my fingers.  He was alert and curious.  I couldn’t help but wonder what he was thinking.

<<<>>>

John and I alternated feedings that night.  I fed at 11:00 and 2:00.  He got up and fed him at 5:00.  The mama llamas and babies were intrigued, but not yet attached, and I felt bad every time I came out to see him sitting alone.  Bonding with a herd is a process…I thought, watching for signs of attachment.  Starry Knight, my oldest cria, seemed to take to him first.  I hoped the others would follow suit.

Over the next few days, donations began to pour in.  Some from social media followers who I had never met.  Some from dear friends.  Some came in locally.  Some from across oceans.  I found myself in tears more than once as paypal notified me of a donation with a message like “thanks for saving the baby llama.”  People were sharing his posts across Facebook and keeping tabs on his story.  Max, it would seem, had a whole host of fans out there rooting for him, dozens of good people cheering him on from all over the world.

The world is small, and people are kind.  We belong to eachother.

<<<>>>

Within three days, my mama llamas started allowing Max to occasionally nurse.  The babies counted him as one of their own, and I would see the three playing in their pen, the two older boys obviously being extra gentle with their new little friend.

That night, I had concerns that he seems lathargic.  I gave him his bottle before bed.  Gave him another in the middle of the night.  I convinced myself I was being hypervigillant.  Two friends, and fellow livestock people, reminded me that Max was likely to have a lot of catching up to do after the way he was handled for the first two weeks (in addition to everything else, he was also notably underfed).  I slept fitfully, even more fitfully than you get when you have to go to a barn every few hours.

The next morning, I found him in the corner of the stall, almost unable to stand up.

Something was very wrong.

I took his temperature.  94.4.

Very, very wrong.  Part of me wondered if my thermometer was malfunctioning.

My mama llamas looked on with obvious confusion as I ran back down to the house.  They were downright alarmed when I collected Max and put him in the car.

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I drove us straight to the vet, keeping him from standing on the seat with one hand while steering with the other.   (It only worked because he was pretty out of it at that point.) The vet techs ushered us straight into an exam room where we placed Max on a heating pad, covered him with extra blankets, and began running a space heater while we waited on the vet.  Everything we knew said hypothermia.

Max at Vet 1

(This, by the way, is what happens when you try to raise livestock in the house; their system doesn’t know how to handle actual weather.)

I waited until the vet came in.  He wanted to keep him for the day and work on the body temp.  I left Max in the capable care of the vet techs.  He was alert and his temp was steadily ticking up.

I went home and took a nap.  Four days of about five hours of heavily interrupted sleep was taking a toll.  I rested for several hours, checked in with the vet when I woke up, and was told that it looked like I could bring Max home that night.

<<<>>>

Max Riding Home

Max rode home on my lap in the backseat of my sister’s SUV.  He wore four blankets to sleep that first night, and  woke up not only to feed him every few hours, but also to take his temperature.  It dipped down a tiny bit in the middle of the night, but generally held steady.

Over the next few days, I watched as my mama llamas went from sort of adopting Max to fully adopting Max.  I moved them all into my front pasture, which is drier and can be seen from the house, and watched as he fully integrated into the little herd.  (Personally, I think maybe the mamas doubted my ability to keep him alive, given the whole putting him in the car debacle, and begrudgedly took over.)  His bottle feedings decreased the more llama milk he drank until he eventually refused them altogether.

<<<>>>

Last week, I pulled Max’s little coat off of him.  He had outgrown it, playing catch up with his weight after a very rough start.  I watch in the evenings as one of my mamas, Baby, nurses Max and Hardy Boy at the same time.  They both tuck against her at night to sleep.

This one, darling…

Max, for sure, has captured a bit of my heart, but he also reminded me of just how small and kind this world can be, even in the face of ugliness.  He reminded me that, even when one day at a time seems like too much, we always have it in us to do the next right thing.

His temp is holding steady.  He is adopted and healthy and on track to be a normal, non-abberent little llama.  He is a miracle for sure, in every sense of the word.

The world is small, and people are kind.  We belong to eachother.

Max Eyelashes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Winter, Christmas, and All of the Lists

I sat down last weekend and made my Christmas lists.  Christmas shopping.  Christmas goals.  Taking some inspiration from a blogger I follow–Karen at The Art of Doing Stuff–I decided that this year, I want to have my holiday obligations (the shopping, the wrapping, the decorating, etc) out of the way by the end of November, leaving December wide open for less-stress celebrations and evenings enjoying the season in front of a nice fire.

This year, I will be organized and intentional, and I WILL NOT be wrapping the last of my gifts on Christmas day before we load the car…again.  I refuse.

Maybe it was the early first snow that kicked my butt into gear.  Maybe it was Karen’s email about her Christmas pledge.  Maybe it was the fact that my furnace chose the evening of our first snow to take a shit, reminding me very clearly and viscerally of what cold and winter feel like.

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Maybe it was a combination of the three.

Either way, Winter, I’m here with you.  To-do lists in hand. Continue reading “Winter, Christmas, and All of the Lists”

A Day in the Life

8:15:

Coffee

It’s after 8:00; I’m still in bed, under covers, and I’ve only REALLY been awake for about 15 minutes.  Over and over, I have to explain this.  I don’t do early mornings unless I have to, and on weekends, I don’t have to.

People who hear about the ranch always assume that I’m up before dawn.  They expect, I suppose, that I am out by the sunrise, scattering chicken feed from the pockets of an apron that I would assumedly be wearing while singing “The Hills are Alive” from The Sound of Music.

No.

My sweet spot is between 7:00 and 8:00.  Which is why I’m still not quite out of bed when John comes back in with coffee.

John is almost always awake first.  His job, as a process engineer for a company about an hour and a half from here, requires that his ass be at his desk by 7 am.  His internal clock is set differently than mine.

 He makes coffee for us on the weekends.

Really good coffee.

I’m keeping him.

He offers me my coffee cup.  I stretch.  Sit up.  Take the cup.

“Good morning, gorgeous.”

This is my wake-up every morning that we wake up in the same space.  It’s less often than we’d like since he still lives and works over 100 miles away.  The distance, which both of us coming off of bad break-ups had initially found so comforting, is starting to get old.

I take a sip of the coffee.  It’s hot and delicious.  Fresh ground.  Just a hint of cream.  No sugar.

The day, we both know, will be long, so coffee is slow.

<<<>>>

9:30:

It’s already hot outside when we finally make it to the barn.  Truthfully, wiser ranchers and farmers start chores earlier than me to beat the heat.  I trade in 5 to 10 degrees of comfort for an extra hour or two in bed.  We all make choices.

I start cleaning stalls while John fills hay nets.  These are the daily chores, along with collecting eggs and feeding chickens, letting the cats out of their room, and making sure the horses have food (either hay or pasture).   Weekends are usually full of stuff that doesn’t make the day-to-day and this one is no exception.

<<<>>>

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10:30:

Cinco is so easy to catch.  Basically, you want up to him and ask politely.  He stands still while you slip a halter on and walks with you maintaining respectable distance.  I bring him into the center of the barn and hand him to John, and head into my feed room to grab my hoof trimming tools.

That’s a thing I do now.   I never budgeted hoof care into the equation when I brought all of these guys home.  That may seem shortsighted, except that I was married to a farrier (a horse shoer/trimmer) at the time, and I hadn’t planned for the marriage to spectacularly fail.  After it did, I was left with the choice of learning how to trim my own horses or getting rid of them, because there was definitely not room in the budget for a good farrier, and the idea of having my ex out to the ranch every six weeks made me feel ill for quite a while..

That brings me here, with Cinco and John.  (On a related note, I’m pretty sure John never saw himself holding horses for trimming either…Life does not always take us where we expect.)

Trimming hooves can be a little bit like performing surgery.  The hoof is complicated, a live piece of their body, and it’s important to understand the anatomy before cutting into it.  Fortunately, I was already fairly well-versed in that before I ever picked up a nipper.  (It’s a side effect of travelling with and listening to a farrier for hundreds and hundreds of hours.)

The actual work though?  All the book knowledge in the world didn’t make it easier to cut into a hoof for the first time.  I knew enough to know just how much I could fuck things up (though my other horsey friends pointed out that one mildly bad trim wasn’t going to do too much damage).

My first trim was of my friend Lauren’s horse with her husband’s supervision.   Then my horses with Lauren’s help and supervision.  Now it’s my horses with my supervision (and an occasional Facetime session with Lauren and her husband).

Since those first few experiences, there have been a lot of “good enough” trims.  Not perfect.  Not exactly what I was looking for, but functional, especially for my herd of horses who are rarely ridden and who are never worked particularly hard.  But this one?  By the time I came to the end of the trim, even I thought it looked pretty damn good.

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Of course, there was blood.  Not Cinco’s.  Mine.  I rarely remember gloves when I first start a trim, and I have a nasty habit of hitting my knuckles with the rasp.  A blood sacrifice to the equine gods, I suppose.

<<<>>>

Noonish: (Trims take me a while)

I wiped the drips of blood off my hands, and lead Cinco down the lane to the backyard.  Typically it’s where I keep the dogs, but the grass is high, and I don’t much feel like mowing.  I watch Cinco as we walk down the drive, and I’m pleased with how he’s moving.   The trim will serve.  

He is nervous at first until we catch and bring the other horses down to join him. Any nervousness at being in a new field is overshadowed by the security of being with the whole herd and the joy of being in a fresh field with more grass than they can eat. 

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I have work to do in the garden.  (Occasionally, while I pull the weeds that I never have quite been able to keep up with, it occurs to me that I can buy groceries…)

I have errands to run.  (There’s a gardening tool at Lowe’s that I feel I must have but that it turns out I will barely use after tomorrow.)

I need to deworm the cat.  The baby llama needs a shot.  The hay nets are empty and need to be refilled.

When was the last time I watered the flowers on the porch?

Before the day is over, I take two showers, sweating through my barn clothes twice.  (My mom wonders sometimes why I have to do so much laundry…this is it.)  We settle down after evening chores just in time to see some friends pull up the driveway.  They meet the new baby llama.

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They pet the critters who come up to greet them.

We settle in for conversation and wine and some fresh popcorn.

There’s one more day in the weekend.  One more slow morning with delicious coffee.  On Monday, mornings speed up.  John will leave just before 5am.  I will do the chores that must be done before heading to work myself.

The rest will wait until the weekend comes around again.

 

 

Plans, Accidents, and a perfect “K”

Kniggett stood perfectly for shearing.

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He always had; every shearing since his first, Kniggett stood rooted more than tied.  He seemed to enjoy having his hot wool stripped off row by row, exposing the skin underneath to the cool breeze.  He made the job easy, which maybe why I chose to shear him in my first group.

He seemed happy with his new haircut when I finished, wandering off to enjoy the pasture with the other llamas immediately afterwords.  I watched him walk away and shook my head.  He had gotten skinny over the winter.  Really skinny.  I knew that he had lost weight, but the depth and breadth of it hadn’t been entirely clear until I removed his wool.

<<<>>>

Kniggett had been a surprise.  His sire decided to jump a fence between himself and the girls, and Kniggett showed up 11 months later with red wool like his mom and an impish face like his dad.  He was named “Kiley’s Kniggett” after his mom, Kiley, and as an homage to Monty Python’s “Silly English Kniggetts” (Knights) from “The Search for the Holy Grail.”  He was one of the sweetest llamas ever born out here: a perpetual favorite, always asking for neck skritches from his people and saying hello to newcomers.

You love them all, of course.  When you do what I do, have creatures like I do, you love them all.  But some, a few, dig their way just a little bit deeper into your heart.  Theirs are the faces you look for in the morning.  The hellos you always say.  The ones you unintentionally spoil just a little bit extra.

Wednesday, when I drove to work, he was in the dust bath in the front pasture, enjoying a good roll.

Wednesday, when I got home from work, he was still there, but now laying at an odd angle, completely unmoving.  I got out of the car as fast as I could and ran into the pasture.  I called for him, even though I could tell that he was already gone.

Sometimes, when those animals who have dug their way just a little bit deeper into your heart leave you, it’s as though they’ve taken a piece of you with them.  

<<<>>>

I don’t cry over all of them at this point.  Maybe it’s just the sheer volume of loss I have felt out here.  Maybe it’s a deeper appreciation that it’s what I do for them while they’re living that matters and that death is just the next part of a life.   Maybe I’m getting hard.

But I don’t cry over all of them.

I cried over Kniggett.

I cried a lot over Kniggett.

<<<>>>

I gave myself a little bit of space the next morning.  My first chore had come at  7AM when I had to meet the companion cremation guy at my barn and load Kniggett into his truck with my skid steer, and it didn’t entirely sit well with me.  I didn’t need the reminder that he was gone before sitting down for coffee. I went back to the house after that; I needed a minute.

When I went back to the barn later to do my usual morning chores, I was feeling a little worn.  All of my llamas were inside, a definite reminder of the one that was not.

Except…

I was cleaning up my main herd’s stall when I realized that I was missing someone.  Not Kniggett, though I missed him terribly, but Reva.

When I first took over the ranch, I was given Reva and her sister, Baby, by some clients of my ex who didn’t want them anymore.   As of Thursday morning, she was still unshorn, and when I realized she was out alone while the entire herd was inside–not normal behavior for most llamas–I panicked.

“No, no, no” I thought, putting down my barn tools and heading out towards the back pastures in search of her.

Visions of her stretched out with heat stress, unable to move and laboring to breathe flashed through me.  I didn’t pause to consider the fact that she was only a medium wooled animal, and that it wasn’t actually that hot out…

I saw her once I walked past the pine trees, she was to my left, munching on some grass and standing in the shade.

I breathed a sigh of relief before doing a double take.

It wasn’t just her.

It took me a moment to realize that she wasn’t alone, that a baby was next to her, alert and watching me back.

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<<<>>>

After making sure that they were both ok, I walked back to the barn to get a halter for Reva so I could bring the pair in.  As best as I could tell, the little one had been born the afternoon before or very early that morning, coming into the world on the heels of Kniggett leaving it.

His surprise entrace reminded me of Kniggett’s.  He wasn’t unplanned, since I did intentional expose Reva and Baby to our stud last year, but I hadn’t thought Reva caught, and, even to the small degree that I considered it, I had the dates all wrong.

I made them a stall.  I gave Reva a bucket full of grain and corn.  I spent my day assuring myself that the baby, a little boy, was healthy, nursing, and strong.  The pair of them joined back in with the herd that evening, and it became clear that this little guy had an attitude.

What he didn’t have was a name.

Nothing was fitting.  I wanted to play on Sky, his sire’s name, which gave me a number of directions to try out, but nothing clicked.

<<<>>>

Two days later, John and I were texting names back and forth, rapid fire. He eventually commented that the names I came up with sounded like something off of Game of Thrones and responded in kind.

img_4227But then the next one.

“Skye’s Starry Knight…”

It was just one more in the list, but it literally stopped me in my tracks.

Of course he’s a Knight.  Like Kniggett.  Of course he is.

Once I saw it, it was just so obvious.

“That one,” I replied.

“With or without the K?”

The “K” had been a typo, one that stopped me cold and brought tears to my eyes.  A reminder that this little life had been ushered in on the tail end of another. A Starry Knight and a silly English Kniggett.

John was surprised by how well the name landed; he’s still riding the “I named the baby llama” high.

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<<<>>>

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I find myself believing more and more that life is just a series of lessons.  That the job of living is to learn and become better.  And this place?  This life I’ve chosen that is so wrapped up in this home I’m living it in?  It seems to be a lesson in planning and unplanning and accidents.

I’ve said before that I’m a planner.  Maybe a little bit of a control freak.  And I chose a life that, maybe even more than others, cannot be controlled.

This life teaches me that plans are fine and so is throwing them out the window. Accidents, like Kniggett, like the K in Starry Knight, are sometimes the very best parts of life.

Or, maybe, accidents, like Kniggett, like the K in Starry Knight, aren’t really accidents at all, just more of the lesson.

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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”

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.

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

DSC_2496NI 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”

But aren’t llamas mean???

 

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?” Continue reading “But aren’t llamas mean???”