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.

 

 

 

 

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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.

img_0922

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???”

Dangerous Cold and a Full Barn

 

 

I was talking with my friend in Maine the other night before evening chores.

“I don’t wanna go outside!” I whined.  We whine together a lot.  If we lived closer, we’d wine together a lot…and that would be better.  “I checked, Lauren.  It’s been consistently colder here than at your place.  Which seems completely unfair given that you’re basically Canadian!”

Lauren laughed, but acknowledged that it’s true.  They live far enough north that she could damn near apply for dual citizenship.  I, however, live in the middle ground of the country.  Illinois.  Home of Chicago at one end and cornfields at the other.  Despite the expectations that it’s more temperate here, we get nearly arctic colds and southern warms.  (Temperate my ass…110 heat index in Summers and -20+ windchill in the winter.)  Last week, my little corner of creation went through a cold snap.  It was colder here than in Bangor, ME.  Actually, as a matter of fact, it was colder here than in Nome, AK.

And it was a problem. Continue reading “Dangerous Cold and a Full Barn”

2016 with Blue Skies Ahead

Happy New Year Everyone!

January 1st of 2016 surprised me with a nearly perfect blue sky.  Having spent weeks overwhelmed by my Season of Gray, the blue sky was the perfect antidote to my melancholy, and, in my own humble opinion, barn chores under the blue sky were the perfect was to start the new year.

First thing, I wandered out to one of the back pasture to check on a tree fall that one of my neighbors reported to me.  Their tree; our fence.

It pretty much destroyed that section of fence, but it’s so big that no one is going anywhere over, around, or through it.  I don’t have to worry for a while.  (I told Jeremiah that we should chainsaw it in interesting ways and leave it as fence…easier than hauling it out.)

Continue reading “2016 with Blue Skies Ahead”

I can do hard things.

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.”

Introducing the critters – Mystic’s Minnett Mann

A post by a fellow blogger reminded me of the days when we used to use the llamas as therapy animals. I wrote about it a long time ago and posted it when I had just a handful of followers. Here it is again. I hope you enjoy.

Almost Farmgirl

Some of you have expressed interest in learning about the critters, so I decided to start with the one who, for me, really started all of this crazy.  Minnett Mann, my first gelding, is, and always has been, my sweet boy.  I wrote the following during graduate school, about five years ago.

Minnett-Man cutie

Just a Minnett

I’ve never been good at goodbyes, and, in August of 2005, when I stood at the gate of the Illinois State Fair cattle ring, waiting to show my favorite llama for what was supposed to be the last time, it felt far too much like a goodbye. He was four, considered an “adult male,” and was misbehaving. I was nineteen, barely an adult myself, and trying very hard not to cry. I knew that I would never walk into the show ring with Minnett again. I was going away for three months, and he would…

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